Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Humans/American Theater Company

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Hannah Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O'Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hanna Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O’Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The specter of loss hangs like a literal specter, a ghost, over Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” currently receiving its world premiere at American Theater Company. The loss of money, of security, of mothers and daughters and those we hold closest to us, of their respect and their love. Karam conjures up these fears and then sends them skittering off into dusty crevices where they become suspicious knocking sounds and burnt out light bulbs and darkened rooms and the ominous whirring of unseen machinery. 9/11 is present too, the latest loss of innocence for the nation itself. The inconceivable terror of a world that comes crashing down in fire, rubble and ash touches the play’s characters more closely than is first apparent. Karam has drawn up a world much like our own, where everything we know can be gone in a second.

The play itself concerns a single family, the Blakes. The parents, Eric (Keith Kupferer) and Deirdre (Hanna Dworkin), are blue-collar Catholic folk from Scranton, the kind that have purchased land for a lake house but have done so as a two-income household and with a fair amount of belt-tightening. They have come down to the wilds of Chinatown in New York City to spend Thanksgiving in the new apartment of their youngest daughter Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and her much older boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker). Their other daughter, Aimee (Sadieh Rifai), is also there. She’s a lawyer from Philly with a failing intestinal tract and a recent separation from her longtime girlfriend. And Eric’s mother, who everyone calls Momo (Jean Moran), is also physically present, although her mind has long been lost to the ravages of dementia. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Nutcracker/The House Theatre of Chicago

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(l to r) Michael E Smith, Shaun Baer, Jaclyn Hennell, Andrew Lund and Krystal Worrell

Michael E Smith, Shaun Baer, Jaclyn Hennell, Andrew Lund and Krystal Worrell

RECOMMENDED

Just once, I would like to invite someone along to see The House Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” without telling them what they were getting into. For someone who came in expecting Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the result would be at first jarring, then perhaps upsetting (they would at least be upset at me), followed by a growing sense of wonderment and then, finally, delight. Oh, and there might be some crying in there too. And fear. And laughter. And a deep, abiding hunger for sugar plums.

Back in its sixth incarnation since it originally premiered back in 2007, “The Nutcracker” comes complete with an almost entirely new cast and is as delightful as ever. Director Tommy Rapley surely deserves the lion’s share of the credit, as do the play’s original creative team, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich and Kevin O’Donnell. Taken from the original E.T.A. Hoffman short story, the show uses the basic ingredients of the story—Clara, Fritz, a Nutcracker, Uncle Drosselmeyer, rats and Christmas—and cooks up a fresh take. Fritz is now a soldier who died in the war and Clara, played with spunky vivacity by Jaclyn Hennell, is left alone to face the prospect of a Christmas without him. Clara’s grief-numbed parents (Ericka Ratcliff and Paul Fagen) have in fact banished the usual Christmas festivities altogether. When Clara’s sly uncle Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) presents her with a Nutcracker that looks exactly like her dead brother, it is with an eye toward opening a family wound so that this time it can heal properly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hellcab/Profiles Theatre

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(PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow) Jeff Gamlin, Richard Cotovsky

Jeff Gamlin and Richard Cotovsky/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Watching “Hellcab” is sort of like having your heavily tattooed ex-con uncle wish you a merry Christmas. His breath may stink of whiskey and cigarettes, and you can’t look him in the eye without nervously glancing at the three blue teardrops etched on his cheekbone, but you know that deep in his heart he means well. And heck, he’s probably seen more misery in the past twenty-four hours then you’ve seen in the past twenty-four years. If anyone’s earned a little holiday vacation filled with eggnog and cheer and good will toward men, it’s him.

Receiving its third go-round at the Profiles Main Stage, Will Kern’s bilious theatrical nugget is a refreshing blast of stank air. It stars Richard Cotovsky as a lonely, hard-hearted cab driver spending his Christmas Eve on the job. In the course of a brisk eighty-minute runtime, Cotovsky transports a filthy parade of Chicagoans from one end of the city to another. Some appear as good people only to be revealed as jerks, some are outright jerks whose brief time only serves to reinforce the depths of their jerkiness. A diverse array of actors—thirty-three in all—come together to test both Cotovsky’s and the audience’s faith in the inherent goodness of mankind. As Cotovsky played the same roll in 1992’s  original production of  “Hellcab,” he brings a fantastic, Sisyphean sense of resignation to the cabbie’s fate. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Our Holiday Stories/16th Street Theater

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(l to r) Karen Rodriguez and Miranda Zola/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Karen Rodriguez and Miranda Zola/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

RECOMMENDED

Novelist and playwright Elizabeth Berg (“Over the Hill and Through the Woods,” “The Pull of the Moon”), 16th Street artistic associate and Chicago Dramatists resident playwright Robert Koon and Victory Gardens ensemble member and playwright Tanya Saracho (“Our Lady of the Underpass”) offer vignettes of three different ways to spend the winter season in 16th Street Theater’s “Our Holiday Stories.”

Berg’s story centers on a seventy-five-year-old woman who, after having children and becoming a grandmother, has started to question the importance of preparing large gatherings for a family that is seemingly ungrateful. Koon tackles the idea of being a military chaplain serving in Belgium during World War II. And Saracho questions the futility of going home for the holidays when “home” no longer feels like the fondly remembered place from memories. All three stories are wonderfully adapted and directed by 16th Street Theater’s artistic director Ann Filmer. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Guide to Being Single/Underscore Theatre Company

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Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras

Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras

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Wouldn’t it be great if there were a book that provided all the dos and don’ts to loving the single life? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a book about dating that everyone could read so there would be no harm to anyone’s emotions because everyone knows the rules and plays by them? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Maybe. Unless, those darn things called “feelings” got in the way. “The Guide to Being Single,” a new musical by Kaitlin Gilgenbach (book) and Alexi Kovin (music and lyrics), aims to ask and answer those exact questions.

The show is set in Wrigleyville, one of Chicago’s most bar-lined neighborhoods. Six friends Jackie (Sarah Danielle Hoch), Heather (Miki Byrne), Zack (Jonas Davidow), Derek (Jomar Ferreras), Liza (Kelsey Burd) and Stacy (Juanita Andersen) have all discovered a new book promising that, by following the simple rules given, singles can enjoy “screwing without getting screwed.” Rounding out the cast is Chad Michael Innis who plays a bartender, cab driver and bar goer, among other roles. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Holmes and Watson/City Lit Theater

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(l to r) Adam Bitterman and James Sparling/Photo: Tom McGrath

Adam Bitterman and James Sparling/Photo: Tom McGrath

RECOMMENDED

At the heart of City Lit’s “Holmes and Watson” is the co-dependent relationship between the two titular characters. Holmes, to put it bluntly, can be a bit pedantic and his obsessive attention to detail can be downright grating. It is little wonder that he forever remains a bachelor. The fawning Watson, however, does not seem to mind and is content to live vicariously through the master detective’s daring exploits, hanging on his every word. Holmes clearly relishes lecturing to his doctor friend and may at times be even a little jealous of the attention given to Mrs. Watson. It is almost as if Holmes senses that he does not fully exist without Watson.

Under Terry McCabe’s direction, the two partners weave their way in two acts through two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem”). McCabe (who also originally adapted this work for City Lit in 2006) demonstrates a solid understanding of both the characters and the plot twists, presenting both with clarity and flair. In the first act, the buffoonish King of Bohemia (played amusingly by Adam Bitterman, who is also quite convincing as Watson) enlists Holmes in order to snag an embarrassing photo held by his former lover, Irene (the very charismatic Adrienne Matzen). The smug Holmes (played very well by British actor James Sparling) sets up a very elaborate plan to trick Irene into showing him where the photo is hidden. Irene, however, has a few tricks of her own and in the end a smitten Sherlock is left to wonder what might have been. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Submission/Pride Films and Plays

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Ginneh Thomas, Nicholas Bailey, Edward Fraim and Adam Pasen/Photo: Rayme Silverberg

Ginneh Thomas, Nicholas Bailey, Edward Fraim and Adam Pasen/Photo: Rayme Silverberg

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The question posited by Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission” is one of ownership. Who owns a story? And, whose tale is it to tell?

Danny (played by Nicholas Bailey) has written a play. More specifically he has written a play about the hardships of growing up as a young black man, raised by a single mother in a bad part of town. Apparently, it is also a brilliant play. The only problem is that Danny is a middle-class white gay man. He has nothing in common with his characters, and no idea how to relate to anyone who does.

Danny hires an actress named Emilie (played by Ginneh Thomas) to portray the embodiment of his pen name, so that when his play is accepted into the prestigious Humana Festival, she can represent him in the rehearsal hall without his own identity being revealed. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Out of Disorder/Greenhouse Theater

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Out-of-DisorderNo-Text

Photo: Charlie Grigas

RECOMMENDED

More than anything, I think I appreciated “Out of Disorder”’s sequencing. The show is actually a pairing of two solo shows: “Hunger Pains” by Christopher L. Moore and “I’m Different, Not Dumb” by Ali Clayton. Both are directed by Mary Rose O’Connor with an intelligent and economical hand. Moore’s show follows his struggles with eating disorders as a young man and is a fairly straight-up seriocomic autobiography. Clayton’s, on the other hand, draws from her own experience growing up with a rainbow of learning disabilities but it also incorporates a number of sketch characters whose relationship to Clayton’s struggles are thematic yet kind of tangential. (This is not a bad thing really, as the characters are all pretty funny—and the final one is downright hilarious.) “Hunger Pains” goes right for the jugular, while “I’m Different, Not Dumb” is concerned primarily with the funny bone. When I say I appreciate the sequencing, what I mean is that it works quite well to have “Hunger Pains” come in and rough the audience up a bit and then, for “I’m Different, Not Dumb,” to walk up and hand them a lollipop. O’Connor clearly understands the journey that an audience wants to be taking, and, for that, I am very appreciative. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Titanic/Griffin Theatre Company

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Titanic-1

RECOMMENDED

Someone at the money-making end of the performance rights for the Maury Yeston/Peter Stone musical “Titanic” has come up with more room in their pockets than seemed appropriate, and arranged for a “new, intimate” re-working of the musical’s epic tale of oceanic disaster to make it possible for companies who can’t budget for entire herds of actors, a full orchestra and an onstage ocean liner that can disappear and then return for the finale to afford to mount the piece, and give an acceptable rendering of its story-and-song so “Titanic” needn’t go the way of the almost un-producible “Sunset Boulevard.”

Griffin’s production does much with little. There is no pretense of a boat. They make do with a high platform, two moveable sets of stairs, and a ship’s steering wheel. The lack of spectacle allows the audience to focus on the collapse of the class system when the overzealous and the under-focused leadership of the vessel allow it to crash into an iceberg. And the music, of course. Yeston can spin a lush melody with his particular branding; on the hearing of two phrases, three at the most, one can usually name a song as Yeston’s. Yet each soaring moment is uniquely tied to a character and a situation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The King & I/Marriott Theatre

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Heidi Kettenring

Heidi Kettenring

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There are those who may grouse at the remounting of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that paved the way for J.R. Brown, Guettel and Sondheim. But “South Pacific” won’t go away, no matter the amount of hair-washing. There will continue to be corn-filled, beautiful mornings, and a tinkley tune set in 3/4 time, slowly swelling in orchestration and tempo until we remember our first carousel ride is not disappearing any time soon.

And just why might that be, you Grumpy Gusses, longing for louder percussion and more overt hurt? Is it the melding of perhaps overly romantic lyric to hummable melody? I won’t pretend that has nothing to do with the equation; we do like to leave the theater humming, Jason, and be able to recite at least a phrase or two of the lyrics, Stephen. But let’s look for just a moment at the themes of the pieces these two giants wove, subtly, into their effervescent canon, in light of the times in which they lived. They chose material that, in lesser hands, might have been considered too subversive to survive at the box office. Read the rest of this entry »