Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Downpour/Route 66 Theatre Company

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DOWNPOUR 2

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Before Caitlin Parrish began to write for television’s “Emily Owens, M.D.” and “Under the Dome,” she was an award-winning playwright. With director Erica Weiss at the helm, Parrish’s “A Twist of Water” enjoyed success in Chicago and off-Broadway. The team reunites for “The Downpour,” given a vibrant production here through an oversized Chicago picture window. If Parrish’s work in television has kept her busy for the last two years, and if “The Downpour” has been two years in the making, I am left to ponder what effect this splitting of focus might have had on this play. The first act left me beautifully shaken, the second act beautifully dissatisfied.

The familial dysfunction on display in “Downpour” is as unrelenting as a tidal wave, and as mysterious layer after a homicidal lie is revealed, I was all gooseflesh. Like any good thriller, the list of potential victims mirrors that of possible suspects, presumed reality brushing up against unwieldy truths. What is the inherent danger in the older sister’s pregnancy? Why does the younger sister write children’s books where the child-protagonist is always locked away? Why does the husband never question the large scar on his wife’s head? Can a happy whoremonger change? What does the incessant theme of water portend? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Isaac’s Eye/Writers Theatre

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Ledo, Grapey, Banks (background), Hooper, horiz

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Lucas Hnath is not concerned with getting it right. He’s concerned about getting it true. From the outset of his devious new play “Isaac’s Eye” he states that this story is filled with “ether”: the unseen stuff that allows us to understand the things that are true. Hnath has taken this idea from his play’s subject, Isaac Newton, and extrapolated it to encompass the work itself. We are told that most of what we are about to see did not happen. The play even helps us to distinguish fact from fiction by having the actors write everything in the play that is factually true on a chalkboard. It’s as though Hnath is saying “we’ll leave the history to the lecture hall and get on with the business of art.” And get on with it he certainly does.

I don’t think that “Isaac’s Eye” could ask for a better Chicago-area home than it finds in Writers Theatre. Their particular blend of skill, empathy and wit is a perfect match for Hnath’s humane but intellectually ambitious script. Out of one part fact and two parts whole cloth, “Isaac’s Eye” spins a tale of a young, hungry entirely unknown Newton (Jurgen Hooper). After somewhat vaguely agreeing to marry his longtime (and long-suffering) companion Catherine (Elizabeth Ledo), Isaac promptly has her contact an old friend of her father’s, Robert Hooke (Marc Grapey), a scientist extraordinaire and member of Isaac’s ticket out of Nowheresville: The Royal Society. After reading Isaac’s papers Hooke is immediately threatened by the young man’s considerable intellect and agrees to meet him in person, the better to shut him down. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Midnight City/Firecat Projects at the Steppenwolf Garage

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Tony_Stan

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Tony Fitzpatrick is moving to New Orleans, and his friend Stan isn’t happy. That about sums up the premise of “The Midnight City,” currently playing at the Steppenwolf Garage. It is a loose, shambolic reminiscence of both a man’s life and a city’s. How things change and how they stay the same.

Fitzpatrick is a local artist and grade-A curmudgeon, a holdover from the Studs Terkel era (editor’s note: he’s also a “Newcity” contributing writer). I was not familiar with him prior to attending, and can definitely report that I’ve been missing out. The show’s structure—if it could be accused of having something so square—revolves around conversations between him and his longtime compatriot Stan Klein. The two bicker about Fitzpatrick’s impending move, rail against the hardscrabble city being lost to gentrification and reflect upon the history of their own relationship. For all of Fitzpatrick’s self-proclaimed punk-rock credentials (including his friendship with Lou Reed which, okay, is a pretty solid line on the ol’ resume) the show is very much a paean to The Good Ol’ Days. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Coward/Stage Left Theatre

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Brian Plocharcyzk/Photo: Johnny Knight

Brian Plocharczyk/Photo: Johnny Knight

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“An armed society is a polite society,” goes the old NRA slogan. Perhaps, but it’s also an insane society, as demonstrated by Nick Jones’ play “The Coward,” receiving its Midwestern premiere courtesy of Stage Left.

The courage-challenged individual in question is young Lucidus Culling, played with appropriate fussiness by Brian Plocharczyk. He’s the son of a howlingly mad British nobleman (Stephen Walker), who has already lost two sons on the field of honor and apparently won’t be happy until he has lost his third and last. Lucidus, a cross between Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Disney’s Ferdinand the flower-sniffing pacifist bull, is torn between the pressure to prove himself a true aristocrat—i.e., a polished, casual killer—and his passion for ranking butterflies by beauty. And then there’s his infatuation for the social butterfly Isabelle Dupree, who has won his heart and handkerchief but, as the play opens, values neither. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Game’s Afoot/Drury Lane Theatre

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Tempe Thomas, Derek Hasenstab/Photo: Brett Beiner

Tempe Thomas, Derek Hasenstab/Photo: Brett Beiner

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“She was ruthless. She was evil. She was a theater critic, for God’s sake!”

Delivered in the baritonal vocal stylings of Chicago’s own national treasure Alene Robertson, this pronouncement brought the press opening of Drury Lane’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot” to a howling halt. One of America’s foremost farceurs, Ludwig continues to churn out theatrical charmers with his carefully researched comedies, chock full of good-old-fashioned slapstick and one-liners. Winner of “Best Play” at the 2012 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Awards, “Afoot” does not disappoint.

Given the winning whipped-cream treatment by artistic director William Osetek, this production whizzes along, immersed in the art décor era of real-life protagonist William Gillette (Derek Hasenstab) by the expert design of scenic director Kevin Depinet, Greg Hofmann’s lighting, Maggie Hofmann’s fabulous costumes, and Ray Nardelli’s sound design. If you haven’t toured the Connecticut castle built by the Broadway star of his own play, “Sherlock Holmes,” you will walk away feeling as if you’ve had a taste. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On the Town/Marriott Theatre

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On the Town Slide 2
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 »