Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Pseudo-Chum/The Neo-Futurists

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(l to r) Aaron Lawson, Carolyn Benjamin, Sean Benjamin/Photo: Daniel Neumann

Aaron Lawson, Carolyn Benjamin, Sean Benjamin/Photo: Daniel Neumann

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Disclosure, before the sharks circle: I like to be amused. I’m generally not amused by art about art, whether it concerns its own making or whether it ruminates on or examines other art. Sean and Carolyn Benjamin’s “Pseudo-Chum” is highly amusing, and/but it’s also about itself and about other art. Once upon my own youth I had a writing teacher who instructed that the one thing you should not write about is writing. Thanks to this Neo-Futurists production, I’m violating this in the extreme: writing about writing about writing. Is there a solution to this dilemma? As a meta fact there is. I just ain’t gonna mention a single of the play’s cultural references. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Romulus/Oracle Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza

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The setting starts out so lovely. You walk into Oracle’s cozy little cabin of a space off of Broadway and you’re greeted with what looks like a charming Tuscan villa. It’s the kind of place that the erstwhile star of a Nancy Meyers movie might retreat to “find herself.” Sure everything’s a bit grayish and decaying and there appear to be giant ragged holes in that patio umbrella but, look, there’s a bowl of fruit! What a charming still life. What could go wrong with such a lovely bowl of fruit? Well, when the play you’re about to see is set during the death rattle of the Roman Empire and you’re in the hands of a pair of men—Gore Vidal and Friedrich Durrenmatt—who don’t exactly traffic beach-read escapism and, really, when it’s an Oracle show in general, the answer turns out to be: pretty much everything.

The play is called “Romulus” and it is Vidal’s rather loosey-goosey adaptation of the play “Romulus the Great” by Durrenmatt. The latter was a mid-century Swiss playwright who specialized in withering, absurdist take-downs of capitalism, and the former was one of the great lefty lions of said century’s back half. Needless to say, money and empire and Rome and America and conservative values and patriotism don’t exactly fare well. Director Kasey Foster and a spirited cast offer a rousing production that adds a daffiness of its own to Vidal and Durrenmatt’s polemical lunacy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Audience Annihilated Part 2: Gold Star Sticker/Dream Theatre Company

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Some of the most unsettling characters in horror films aren’t the demonic phantasms or unkillable slashers, but the just-real-enough weirdos who inhabit the margins of the narrative, halfway between daytime reality and surreal terror. For a tense fifteen minutes, Dream Theatre Company will plop you down in their living room to be the object of sneering scorn in “Audience Annihilated Part 2: Gold Star Sticker.”

The sequel to 2011’s “Audience Annihilated Part One: Women Only Train,” “Gold Star Sticker” places the audience in the role of Princess, the kind of terrified bed-wetter child who always draws the parental short stick in these kinds of stories. The aforementioned weirdos are her caretakers—junkie mother (Nicole Roberts), ukulele-toting Juggalo boyfriend (Jeremy Menekseoglu), and an unexplained drug-pushing amputee (Amanda Lynn Meyer) with a very unsettling emphysema lung-rattle and an incredibly sweet satin Cubs jacket. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Velveteen Rabbit/Lifeline Theatre

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(L to R) Jamie Cahill and Christopher Acevedo/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

Jamie Cahill and Christopher Acevedo/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

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“When you’re real, you don’t mind being hurt.” This central theme permeates an affable and vibrant staging of Margery Williams’ timeless book “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which opens KidSeries’ twenty-eighth season at Rogers Park’s Lifeline Theatre.

The classic tale of toys’ secret lives (some seventy-odd years before Buzz Lightyear) is adapted for the stage by ensemble member Elise Kauzlaric and brought to bright life by Jamie Cahill as the floppy and progressively more existent Rabbit, her peaches and cream face an ideal projection of naïve emergence.

Christopher Acevedo, as the rabbit’s young keeper and caretaker, is a sweetly blank canvas for the young audience’s fantasies. When the boy’s unconditional love for the rabbit gives way to the Scarlet Fever that will condemn her to the woodpile, Acevedo’s performance is never inappropriately worrisome, although the thematic content— and need for subtle understatement—is better suited for an audience closer to five rather than younger. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Animal Farm/Steppenwolf For Young Adults

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AnimalFarm_Production10

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There is something significant about the prolific writer George Orwell using stories as his vehicle for political action. Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and suffered a gunshot wound to the throat, knew the limitations war had in bringing about genuine change.  Simply exchanging political systems and leaders was equally insufficient. For as writer and feminist Audre Lorde states, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

To bring about impactful change that would revolutionize the world, Orwell needed a different weapon than the master’s tools. So with pen in hand as his chosen artillery, he took to the battlefield of the blank page and an allegory entitled “Animal Farm” emerged the victor.

Written to pierce the consciousness of men to provoke social action, Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ (SYA) production of the classic novel achieves what Orwell intended. In this soul-stirring adaptation, it won’t be long before you, yourself, will want to join in the revolution happening on stage.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ionesco Suite/Theatre de la Ville at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Left to right: Jauris Casanova, Céline Carrère, Stéphane Krähenbühl, San-dra Faure, Olivier Le Borgne, and Charles Roger Bour/Photo: Agathe Pouoponey.

Jauris Casanova, Céline Carrère, Stéphane Krähenbühl, Sandra Faure, Olivier Le Borgne and Charles Roger Bour/Photo: Agathe Pouoponey.

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It was a happy coincidence that I happened to catch Theatre de la Ville’s “Ionesco Suite” within a day of seeing Strawdog Theatre’s production of “Fail/Safe.” Both shows traffic in mid-century post-nuclear absurdism, one through skewering the bourgeois with comedic fragmentation and formalist experimentation and one through showing a bunch of B-movie archetypes almost blow up the world. They are about as different as two shows can be while still being about the same basic thing: what it’s like to live in a world that could be blown to smithereens at any second. And whereas “Fail/Safe” portrays the absurdity of this condition (and does a white-knuckle job of it), “Ionesco Suite” goes a step further by embodying it, like the play itself is having a nervous breakdown.

The show, an original creation by Theatre de la Ville’s artistic director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, is part collage, part human-centipeding of a number of Eugene Ionesco’s works. Ionesco was a leading light in the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement of the fifties and sixties along with Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Friedrich Durrenmatt and many others. Their shows eschewed traditional realism (which is great for Chicago, as we’re up to our eyeballs in the stuff) in favor of heightened stylization, all the better to highlight the absurdities on display and heighten their alienating affect. The show includes scenes from Ionesco’s plays “The Bald Soprano,” “The Lesson” and “Jack, or The Submission” among others. It is not an attempt to cut and paste these excerpts into a single cohesive whole, and it doesn’t play like a greatest-hits album either. Really it’s more like reading a fine book of short stories, something along the lines of George Saunders’ “The Tenth of December.” Each segment presents a different view on the same condition, like a series of shadows all cast from a single light. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mighty Ted/MCL Theater

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The Mighty Ted 1-2

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It’s been said that life can be more hilarious than fiction. So, what happens when someone has a stroke, their spouse loses their job, and both husband and wife are faced with enormous life changes that would generally cause despair? How about write a musical comedy? That’s exactly what happens in “The Mighty Ted,” a fantastic new musical at MCL Chicago.

“The Mighty Ted” traces the real life story of Ted Waltmire, who also plays the lead in the show. Ted is, as one of the numbers clearly states, “an average guy.” Aside from having a deep love of music, especially Stephen Sondheim musicals, he generally wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, spends time with his wife, Michelle (portrayed by Cheryl Szucsits), goes to sleep and repeats the same routine pretty regularly day in and day out. That is, until he has a stroke. After that, his life is turned upside down. Ted has to relearn everything from walking and talking to getting dressed, with limited mobility on one side of his body.  Meanwhile, Michelle not only has to adjust to Ted’s healing process, but she also struggles to find employment after losing her job. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: At Last: A Tribute to Etta James/Black Ensemble Theater

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The five Etta James with Rueben D. Echoles and Ms. Real

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“Etta James. Etta James. I love me some Etta James!” The fabulous Ms. Real (played by the equally fabulous Rueben D. Echoles) proclaims that message more than once throughout Jackie Taylor’s “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Ms. Real is the narrator of this story. She keeps all five Ettas (from a young Etta to an Etta near the end of her life) on pace and honest with themselves. Echoles delivers a Ms. Real that is aptly titled—and costume changes (designed by Ruthanne Swanson) that, like Etta, just get better and better over time.

It seems fitting that James is played by a cast of five women. After all, the script duly notes that she was “five or six people most of the time.” Her talent surely had that kind of feel. She started singing in her church choir at age five and as a teenager she was already recording singles, like the number one US R&B hit, “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry).” Over the course of her rollercoaster career—while fighting battles with weight, drug addiction and searching for love from others as well as herself in her personal life—James released more than fifty singles (many of which made Billboard’s Hot 100 list and/or Billboard’s R&B Hot 100 list) and received Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Best Traditional Blues Album, Best Jazz Vocal Performance and a Lifetime Achievement. She was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Vandal/Steep Theatre Company

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Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor/Photo: Lee Miller

Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor/Photo: Lee Miller

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Playwright Hamish Linklater’s first play is being billed by Steep Theatre as “funny.” But there was not a single laugh from the audience the night I saw the show. Alright, there were two abrupt snorts that might have been a reaction to a tripped funny-wire but, in this production, the play is hardly comical. What “The Vandal” is, is a very smart, well-paced discussion of life, death, truth and love, from an existential viewpoint. When a freshman playwright sits down at a table with Sartre, Beckett, and Stoppard, and uses all the right forks and doesn’t slurp the soup, attention must be paid.

It is hardly possible to comment on the plot without giving away its surprising twists and turns, and naming the questions the audience will want to ask themselves on their way home. I’ll go so far as to say that anything might be true or not, someone might love someone or not, and someone might be dead. Or not. And listen for the rapid-fire, almost thrown-away warblings, for that’s when the birds are singing the “real” story. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Both Your Houses/Remy Bumppo

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Noah Simon, Peter A. Davis, Linda Gillum, David Darlow

Noah Simon, Peter A. Davis, Linda Gillum, David Darlow

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Somewhere in the dusky realm between classic and forgettable lies Maxwell Anderson’s political tragicomedy “Both Your Houses.” Now undergoing a nifty revival by Remy Bumppo, the play arrives just in time for the 2014 midterm election and its attendant theater of mudslinging, malicious, big-budget stupidity.

The 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winner shows its age in many ways, from the creaky melodrama of its structure, which pits the uselessly good against the simplistically wicked, to its antediluvian political economics and social attitudes, which make Archie Bunker look PC. But for all of that, this is a production worth watching for the skill of its all-around execution, its still-zingy portrayal of the interface of avarice and ego that is Washington, D.C., and for actor David Darlow’s tour de force as Representative Solomon (Sol) Fitzmaurice, a corrupt politician of Falstaffian charm and insight, who is revealed here as one of the great and unjustly neglected characters of the American stage. Read the rest of this entry »