Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: On the Town/Marriott Theatre

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On the Town Slide 2

Given that “West Side Story” is often considered the greatest musical ever written, odd that its predecessor “On the Town,” the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is done so infrequently.

Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in “West Side Story” was still a long way off in “On the Town,” which began life as the ballet “Fancy Free.” That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.

Bernstein’s score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own style, the music often coming off as Gershwin meets Shostakovich. When MGM made the movie version, they gutted most of Bernstein’s score as being too “operatic” in favor of new tunes by MGM house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film, a Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people are often expecting the movie tunes in the stage production. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Arsonists/Strawdog Theatre

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(L to R) Mike Ooi, Jared Fernley, Robert Kauzlaric, Blair Robertson/Photo: Chris Ocken

Mike Ooi, Jared Fernley, Robert Kauzlaric, Blair Robertson/Photo: Chris Ocken


I once lived next door to an aspiring young arsonist. On either side of the house I shared with a different kind of flame, two homes were gutted with fire before the kid was caught. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured. If my neighborhood had been full of the kind of folks in “The Arsonists” I wouldn’t be so grateful for everybody’s survival. Except for put-upon maid Anna (Rebecca Wolfe, engagingly frustrated with and casually disdainful of everyone else) the characters, on opposite ends of the political and economic spectrum, are fairly equal in one regard: their laughable repugnance. Anna seems apolitical and, given her position in the employ of the wealthy and unambiguously greedy Biedermann (Robert Kauzlaric, hilariously arrogant and cowardly), we can guess her financial state is above that of the unemployed wrestler and waiter for whom this play is named. She’s in the middle of all the madness, bearing no explicit complicity in the impending disaster while surrounded by the grotesquely guilty—the only one seemingly sane or worth saving. She’s like an argument for the placating nature of a steady job. Read the rest of this entry »

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: 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 »