Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Season On The Line/The House Theatre of Chicago

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TheHouseTheatreofChicago_SeasonontheLine_5

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When I tell you that the House Theatre’s newest show is a theatrical adaptation of “Moby Dick” that is also about a theater company attempting to put on a theatrical adaptation of “Moby Dick” and is also a three-and-a-half hour long minor epic and is also a meditation on the evolution of the House Theatre itself while also being a meditation on the relationship between theater and theater criticism and is last but not least heavily steeped in the minutiae of the Chicago storefront theater scene, I know exactly what you are going to say. You are going to say “Oh that is exactly the kind of show that I have been longing to see and I will definitely be buying my ticket immediately.” Well here’s the thing, you hypothetical straw-man sarcastic jerk: it is, and you should, and yes immediately.

Written by Shawn Pfautsch and directed by Jess McLeod, “Season On The Line” is indeed all the things I have mentioned above. It is clearly not a show that is afraid of appealing to too broad an audience, even as it actually is a show with broad appeal. It is a story about being in love with this crazy thing that you do whilst simultaneously realizing that being in love with this thing is in and of itself totally crazy and you should probably start doing something else before this destroys you. It is one hundred and ten percent a play about a play and also 100% a show just about being a human being trying to connect with other human beings. And at three-and-a-half hours, it is actually able to be 200% of a show, without ever seeming longer than, oh, say, two-and-a-half. (Try telling someone that a show was a “fast” three-and-a-half hours some time. It gets a great laugh. Or an expletive. Or both) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Smokefall/Goodman Theatre

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(L to R) Eric Slater, Mike Nussbaum and Guy Massey/Photo: Liz Lauren

Eric Slater, Mike Nussbaum and Guy Massey/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

At a point early on in Noah Haidle’s moving morality/mortality tale, troubled father Daniel (a world-weary Eric Slater, effectively straddling inner sadness and external buoyancy) reads from the daily newspaper to his adoring daughter Beauty (Catherine Combs, delicate and stalwart in equal measure). He is reading about a new discovery: the shape of human DNA. As Daniel expounds on the story to Beauty, he traces the double helix shape through the air with his finger. It’s a beat that director Anne Kauffman wisely chooses to slow down and draw attention to, though the audience may not understand the full significance in the moment. But by the end of this rather mind-bending walk through several generations of interwoven lives within one family (with most of the cast playing multiple characters), it’s abundantly clear how that little twisted ladder pattern affects us all in more ways than we can imagine.

Last year “Smokefall” had its world premiere in the Goodman’s smaller Owen Theatre and set the record for highest number of individual tickets sold in the Owen’s history during its run. Now it has smartly been given a second life (with the original company intact) in the larger Albert Theatre space during the Goodman’s ninetieth anniversary season. And though I didn’t see the original production, this is a show that certainly feels at home in the Albert, with Kevin Depinet’s ambitious combination of abstract and realistic set design filling the space with a familially familiar living room that bends to the will of even the most metaphorical and nonsensical aspects of this twisty-turny narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Alice/Upended Productions

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(l to r) Josh Zagoren, Dina Walters/Photo: Johnny Knight

Josh Zagoren, Dina Walters/Photo: Johnny Knight

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“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” provide wonderful delight to readers across generations and endless inspiration to artists across disciplines. Right now (this is speculation) several males, females and individuals refusing to identify with a binary gender designation are renaming themselves “Alice Liddell” all over F@cebøøk in surreal protest of that site’s “real name” policy.

You too shall be rechristened Alice when you opt to go down the rabbit hole (and up and down several flights of stairs) at Upended’s revival of Noelle Krimm’s multi-venue, hop-around-the-‘hood “Alice.” Upon arriving at the Neo-Futurarium the other “guests” and I were name-tagged, and shortly thereafter chastised (albeit gently) by our hostess. Hosts vary; for our 1pm tour a very demure Mrs. Rabbit (Dina Marie Walters), frequently consulting a Betty Crocker book to validate her stances on proper party etiquette, guided us through a variety of nearby Andersonville establishments (bar, resale shop, that Swedish museum…) to provide us all a glimpse, through Alice’s eyes, into each of the dozen chapters of Lewis Carroll’s allegedly nonsensical, cogently illogical masterpiece. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Night Alive/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r): Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper and Helen Sadler/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper and Helen Sadler/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Disheveled, rundown and struggling for work, aging Tommy (portrayed with a lived-in sort of grace by Francis Guinan) lives in a disheveled, rundown room in his uncle’s aging house (the set design by Todd Rosenthal evokes both comfort and dilapidation). His sweet but slow-on-the-uptake friend Doc (Tim Hopper, brilliant at being less than brilliant) works with him (when there’s work) and sometimes crashes at his place as well. It’s clear the two have established a sort of lovingly codependent repertoire—the kind of friendly frankness and ongoing arguments that long-time compatriots develop—with each other as well as with Tommy’s landlord, the often drunk Uncle Maurice (a captivatingly gruff M. Emmet Walsh).

When Tommy comes home late one night with the injured Aimee (Helen Sadler, in a strong turn as a troubled young woman) the dynamics of his life shift. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s enough for Tommy to take another look around his living quarters and realize how shabbily he’s caring for them (and for himself)—though he’s set in his ways enough that he doesn’t do much to change either. And though Aimee means him no harm, she’s not necessarily the saving grace he’s been looking for. In fact, she causes a lot more trouble than she intends. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The World Of Extreme Happiness/Goodman Theatre

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MimiSunnyDestiny

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In the couple of years since I saw “The World of Extreme Happiness” as part of Goodman’s New Stages festival, the humor has become a little sharper, the production has grown notably grander, but the tone has remained personal, almost intimate, despite the sweeping topics it addresses. To demonstrate the inescapable dreariness of a peasant girl in rural China whose dreams of financial success turn toward loftier horizons, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s script exhibits nearly as many facets as the oft-mentioned, ever-changing Monkey King. Family melodrama, broad humor, sloganeering and a little gore combine to reveal country girl Sunny’s dream of modern urban life as a horrendous and hopeless nightmare.

If you’re past a certain age in Sunny’s stark and bleak contemporary China, you’ve already been crushed and or compromised, if you weren’t corrupt all along. Sound like a place you know? Some are crushed and corrupted in comfort—like the affluent, powerful pair whose machinations lead to the PR stunt with which this show climaxes—while those less fortunate compromise for the smallest reward: a coercive hand job on the factory floor, or some cash in exchange for marrying off your daughter. The young’uns we meet, aiming for the stars, meet degradation of the lowest order. Suckered in by their own dreams, and the hucksterism of upward mobility, today’s youth from the country are no less grist for the big-city mill than the victims of Mao that the crusty old factory hand bemoans. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: John Doe/Trap Door Theatre

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12_Wariat i Zakonnica

RECOMMENDED

Oh this was barely bearable until everyone lost their bearings at the end. Strong finish, I mean—pushes all my misgivings about the show so far to the fore that it transcends them. Though ignorant of Polish playwright Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz’s suicide, I sat through Trap Door’s production of this adaptation of his “The Madman and the Nun” with a pair of inappropriately appropriate thoughts:

• I would rather kill myself than watch much more of this.

• This seems to be the work of a certain suicide.

My own suicidal ideation (note to mental health professionals: this is merely a creative flourish on the part of this reviewer, who values his own life dearly) was largely spurred on by two factors:

• The delightfully insufferable, nearly relentless, maddening minimalist musical backdrop. (Where can I download this stuff to play on endless repeat?)

• All the goddamn screaming, which in concert with the above makes this a night of auditory torture. (I promptly wore some earplugs after the show, for after-the-fact comfort.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Evil Dead The Musical/Broadway In Chicago

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Evil Dead Tour 2014 0277
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The main issue one encounters when judging a musical based on the “Evil Dead” series of movies is how to pull it off without Bruce Campbell. The beloved B-movie actor anchors the entire series as Ashley J. “Ash” Williams with a unique blend of rugged machismo and Tex Avery madness. It’s not that no one else can wield a shotgun and growl “groovy” during the apocalypse, it’s that no one else is Bruce Campbell. The solution that “Evil Dead The Musical” finds is brilliant in this regard. Instead of trying to find Theater School Bruce Campbell, make the rest of the production as over-the-top as Ash is. In this regard, “Evil Dead” is mostly successful and incredibly fun.

The first act covers the drive into the woods, where the character archetypes (Hero/Hero’s Girlfriend/Dead Meat Friend/Slutty Girl/Fifth Wheel Sister) break into a vacation cabin, find the plot-driving Necronomicon Ex Mortis, raise a whole bunch of evil spirits, get possessed by those spirits, and set their sights on surviving the night.

The early going is enthusiastic but a little broader than it needs to be (so much motorboating!) until Andrew Di Rosa’s farmer-tanned redneck Jake steals the act and nearly the show with “Good Old Reliable Jake.” It’s a hysterical bit of meta-commentary that also addresses the character-building criticisms most often directed at B-horror movies. It doesn’t hurt that Di Rosa sells the hell out of it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Kurt Weill Cabaret/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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Kurt Weill’s career, like this show, had two very distinct acts: the first superb, the second not so much.

Act I was set in Weimar Germany in the late 1920s, where the conservatory-trained composer achieved immortality by crafting jaggedly dissonant music that perfectly complemented the haunting, sharp-edged lyrics of Bertolt Brecht in such works as “The Threepenny Opera,” “Happy End” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”

Afterward came his American period. Fleeing Hitler with his wife, the actress/singer Lotte Lenya, Weill shed his past altogether, re-emerging as a successful but conventional tunesmith for a mostly forgotten series of Broadway musicals. He died of a heart attack in 1950, soon after his fiftieth birthday.

The disrupted, divided nature of the artistic career gives Theo Ubique’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” a schizoid quality. Under the direction of theater co-founder Fred Anzevino, the revue’s first hour pulses with energy, intelligence and inspiration. Performed by a dynamic quintet of singer/dancers (Kellie Cundiff, Christopher Logan, Jordan Phelps, Michael Reyes and Jill Sesso) and accompanied in bravura fashion by musical director Jeremy Ramey, the Brecht segment is more proof, if more were needed, that the seventeen-year-old Theo Ubique is a star in Chicago’s storefront theater firmament. All aspects of the production’s first half—from the strong, unmiked voices to Bill Morey’s grungily authentic period costumes and Maya Michele Fein’s multihued expressionist lighting effects—come together with artful precision, creating a mood of hedonism spiced with Teutonic angst. It is cabaret as it should be: a pared-down, direct presentation, which never panders to the audience, but rather connects with and challenges it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Let Me Down Easy/American Theater Company

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Usman Ally/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Usman Ally/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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What does it mean to be “let down easy?” When put in the context of being “let down easy” in terms of healthcare, does that idea change? One might interpret the saying to mean when one comes to the end of life there is a peaceful calm. Another might say that when one is ill, it means to have gentleness, a certain kindness in the healing process. Playwright Anna Deavere Smith explores the interpretations of that phrase through interviews she conducted with more than 300 subjects in the Chicago premiere of “Let Me Down Easy,” directed by Bonnie Metzgar at American Theater Company.

Out of the 300 interviews, twenty are part of this production, which also marks the first time “Let Me Down Easy” has been performed by anyone other than Deavere Smith. American Theater Company ensemble member Usman Ally takes on the mighty task of portraying all twenty parts in this one-person show, reciting verbatim what people across the country—from Lance Armstrong to Joel Siegel and people from all walks of life in between—have to say about American medical care. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mercy Strain/American Theater Company

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Michael Milligan/Photo: Michal Daniel

Michael Milligan/Photo: Michal Daniel

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As I walked into the theater and was greeted by the set for “Mercy Strain” I had to smile to myself. The show has been advertised as a hit at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and as it happens I have just recently returned from a visit to the 2014 festival. While there, my friends and I joked that every show we saw had a few things in common, namely the fact that they all included very few actual things. The slots in Edinburgh are so tight that any extraneous props or set pieces have to be cut, lest the time you spend setting up lead to the lights being switched off mid-climax because you’ve run five minutes over. The perfect Fringe show, we would say, probably involves nothing more than a table, a chair and one actor just acting his butt off. Lo and behold, the set for “Mercy Strain” turns out to consist of one table and one chair. All that was needed was one actor acting his butt off and the set would be complete. Happily, by the end of the evening, actor Michael Milligan’s butt is nowhere to be found.

Following its success at the Fringe, “Mercy Strain” has toured across the country. It is being presented in Chicago by American Theater Company in rep with Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy” (starring Usman Ally) as “The Healthcare Plays.” If you get a chance to see both, I highly recommend it, as each show features a single actor embodying the dilemmas inherent in our country’s “What’s Mine is Mine and I’ll Sue for What’s Yours” healthcare system, but in dramatically different ways. Actor Usman Ally embodies nineteen different characters in Deavere Smith’s emotions-impaling docudrama, while Milligan’s piece is an entirely fictional work focused on a single man who unfortunately becomes The United States Healthcare System’s own personal Job. Different as they are in scope, each play will leave you with a fresh, gaping hole where your heart used to be. Read the rest of this entry »