Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Travesties/Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

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Meg Warner, Greg Matthew Anderson and Jeff Cummings

Meg Warner, Greg Matthew Anderson and Jeff Cummings

RECOMMENDED

There is more than one lens through which to experience Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties:” One can know everything there is to know about James Joyce, Lenin, Dadaist Tristan Tzara and 1917 Switzerland, and die to revisit it, adore “The Importance of Being Earnest” enough to see it mucked about with, and all technically without Lady Bracknell, or one can throw back the draught of champagne that Stoppard serves up with this word-operetta, and attempt to follow the various hounds.

Director Nick Sandys’ hand is so deft as to be invisible, save for moments when an actor must be sent to a mostly front corner of the rather three-quarters playing space, turn their backs to many, and give their faces to the few who have purchased a ticket for a less advantageous seat. Joe Schermoly’s books-books-more-books set is so right that one hardly notices the increasingly asthma-producing, begrudgingly disturbed mold wafting from the spaces’ carpeting. Playing everyman Henry Carr, Jeff Cummings is in an impish high-tenor; to experience his performance is to be jealous not to be in his shoes, alternated by thankfulness that the responsibility for that warren of verbal and physical dance is not our own. Becoming both a new member of the core company of American Players Theatre and the Remy Bumppo ensemble must make this a heady time for Kelsey Brennan, but her lace-gloved, iron-fisted Gwendolyn seems in no need of smelling salts; she commands where she may. If still damp-eared artistic director Sandys is the obvious successor to the retired James Bohnen, artistic associate Greg Matthew Anderson is Bumppo’s new Sandys, and models that mantle’s delicate combination of insouciance and pedantry with his faultless Tzara. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Jungle/Oracle Theatre

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joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-oracle-the-jungle-4

DeChantel Kosmatka, Zachary Baker-Salmon, Rick Foresee, Travis Delgado, Grayson Heyl/Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux

RECOMMENDED

The most famous quote from famous Chicago muckraker Upton Sinclair about his groundbreaking novel “The Jungle” is the following: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Sinclair had set out to set the reader’s ire aflame about the horrific conditions under which poor immigrant laborers were suffering in the Chicago meat-packing industry. For instance, some of them would fall into giant rendering vats and simply be mixed in with the finished product. But the reaction was not quite what he had intended. Instead of people saying “how horrible for those immigrants,” they said, “Gross, I just ate immigrant.”

In producing an adaptation of “The Jungle” for the stage, director Matt Foss has rectified this and put the focus firmly back on the characters: destitute Lithuanians who come to Chicago seeking a better life and find instead a kind of hell on Earth. The only problem is that Sinclair’s protagonists are actually pretty thinly drawn. They are noble and they are pitiable but they aren’t exactly interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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Max DeTogne/Photo: Adam Veness

Max DeTogne/Photo: Adam Veness

RECOMMENDED

Since the whole God thing is a joke anyway, it makes all the sense in the world to throw some gnarly guitar riffs at the New Testament and call it a musical. Director Fred Anzevino’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic sticks to the script(ure) and contains some standout performances that please the ears and eyes (think: dudes in lingerie). Danni Smith’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene affords the audience a lovely listening opportunity and Tommy Bullington’s Herod is a melange of color and sound so flamboyant you can’t help but wonder if the Bible should be republished with pictures to gain some real traction.

The small theater space is maximized with dance numbers seemingly taking place in the laps of audience members at times, but the production is tight enough to avoid sloppiness. The band, tucked away behind the corner of the stage, deserves props for exhausting themselves shredding through each number and never losing steam. The band’s performance is seriously impressive and reaffirmed my enjoyment of the show each time I remembered to think about them jamming away, which wasn’t often: there’s so much going on that finding moments of consideration requires taking a step back. If it’s your first time seeing “Jesus Christ Superstar” you’ll probably miss a few elements, but your heady knowledge of the Gospel of Matthew should get you through. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Title and Deed/Lookingglass Theatre

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Michael Patrick Thornton as Traveler in Will Eno's "Title and Deed"/Photo: Liz Lauren

Michael Patrick Thornton as Traveler in Will Eno’s “Title and Deed”/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

The man in front of you is not from here. He’s a traveler from a foreign land. In fact “Traveler” is the only name by which he is identified. And as a person not from here he has a wonderful eye for the strangeness of everyday things. He’s an alien, who also happens to be human. He is completely removed but also entirely empathetic and understanding of our plight.

This man, gruffly and gorgeously embodied by actor Michael Patrick Thornton, is the lone and lonely character in Will Eno’s “Title and Deed,” currently receiving its Chicago premiere at Lookingglass Theatre. Directed with simplicity and grace by Marti Lyons, the production is a bit like a sonar blip, a quiet noise returning news from the endless dark inside us.

Good thing it’s funny too. Eno often gets compared to Samuel Beckett, and not without reason. Like Beckett, Eno is concerned with the eddies and peculiarities of human existence, but he is also as sharp a wit as they come. Theatregoers who enjoyed Halena Kays’ toy box production of “Endgame” with The Hypocrites earlier this season would do well to check out the far sparer “Title and Deed.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: La Bête/Trap Door Theatre

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Casey Chapman and Jesse Dornan/Photo: Michal Janicki

Casey Chapman and Jesse Dornan/Photo: Michal Janicki

RECOMMENDED

I truly wonder what would prompt a director to choose David Hirson’s “La Bête” as his or her next project to tackle. It is a play in the style of Moliere, with rhyming couplets throughout. That, in and of itself, is not too daunting of a challenge. After all, classical repertory companies do that sort of work all the time. What strikes me as something which would scare away most directors is the fact that very early in the script there is a monologue that goes on (and on, and on, and on) for well over thirty-five minutes. I’m guessing that you have to have a remarkably stellar actor in mind for the role of Valere before you even consider doing this show. Director Kay Martinovich clearly has such an actor in Kevin Cox. His portrayal of a playwright and absurdly foolish buffoon is amazing and leaves one walking away in awe of his skills.

Luckily, the actors around Cox are also well suited to the demands of their parts. Valere is a street performer who has found favor with the Princess, and therefore has infiltrated the ranks of the court’s favored theater company through accident and happenstance. It is easy to believe that these actors are the royal favorites, for from the first lines of the show Jesse Dornan as Elomire and Casey Chapman as Bejart show elite mastery of verse. Dornan is especially good at hitting internal and feminine rhymes in stride and allowing the dialogue to flow naturally while remaining heightened and stylized. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Good Book/Court Theatre

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Hollis Resnik/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hollis Resnik/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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In Court Theatre’s world premiere of “The Good Book” we follow the lives of Miriam (Hollis Resnik) and Connor (Alex Weisman) as they struggle with their personal faith. Miriam, who ironically has a biblical name, is an atheist biblical scholar and college professor. She tells a zealous Christian student who is opposed to her teachings, “We have to build separate rooms, one for the mind and one for the heart.” In Miriam’s class and life, she thinks of the Bible and faith strictly from an intellectual viewpoint. That heart stuff she left behind a long time ago, until she is faced with a tragedy and has to look inward.

Connor, on the other hand, is a fifteen-year-old boy with hopes of being a priest. His devotion to both the Bible and his faith is evident. Yet when he struggles with his identity, he must reconcile whether this particular faith is for him. Interwoven throughout these two stories are historical reenactments of what went into the creation of the Bible from ancient times until now. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Diary of Anne Frank/Writers Theatre

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Fortunato, Thatcher/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Sean Fortunato and Sophie Thatcher/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The story of Anne Frank, a budding young Jewish woman entrapped by design, hidden in an Amsterdam attic where she bravely, almost joyously awaited what she felt certain would be liberation from Hitler’s regime, and her family’s return to a life of normalcy, has long been the stuff of schoolroom wonder, and schoolyard qualms. For Anne’s story is an adolescent glimpse into a world of cruelty, composed in a music that ignites a burning understanding for the socially privileged and the nationally coddled.

As from any horror, it is simple to look away from the megalomania and treachery that ended the promise of this young life that brimmed full of bounce, laughter, and love. Just as so many of us do when thousands of innocents are slaughtered the world over as struggles for power and money, clothed in robes of ideological reshaping and theological allotment, are robbed of their childhood birthright. Do we hide the horror from ourselves in that drawer in the attic of our hearts? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: End Days/Windy City Playhouse

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Photo: Brian Sidney Bembridge

Photo: Brian Sidney Bembridge

RECOMMENDED

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s existential comedy “End Days” sounds like a tongue-in-cheek choice for the Windy City Playhouse’s launch of its inaugural season. If their opening performance in the department-store-sized black box is any indication of their determination to go the distance by providing a completely moveable seating plan of up to 149, an elegant bar, and music and visual art that complement and question the themes of the play, then here is a new kind of Chicago storefront—one that relaxes an audience as they are immersed in the totality of an experience. And before you tell me this isn’t storefront theater, you’ll have to cross the stage to get to the bathrooms. Enough said. Artistic director Amy Rubenstein’s program notes include this important caveat: “We aim not to compete with the excellent art that already exists, but rather to complement.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Balm in Gilead/Griffin Theatre

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Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The evening begins in an explosion of noise. From the moment the audience enters, tramps and junkies and nightwalkers prowl around the space, almost like they’re protecting it from these well-heeled modern-day interlopers. Then the play begins and the gentle rumble of their spat-out chatter becomes a cacophony, a howling chorus of the street.

The play is Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead,” a foundational text in the history of the Chicago theater style. The way people talk about Steppenwolf’s legendary 1980 production, you’d think the actors walked off the stage and gave the audience a lap dance.

In Jonathan Berry’s new production with Griffin Theatre, currently running at The Den, might as well start with a punky “1-2-3-4” count-off. It launches in on Wilson’s glassy-eyed, motor-mouthed menagerie with fervor. Thirty-one different actors—a who’s who of the storefront scene that this play helped ignite—are crammed on the stage: yelping, yawping, fighting and scrapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Les Misérables/Paramount Theatre 

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Mr. Burns, Theatre Wit

RECOMMENDED

Paramount Theatre certainly knows its way around big Broadway musicals.  From “Cats” to “Miss Saigon” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” their Broadway Series has consistently offered full-throttle, lavishly produced reprises of beloved big-numbered musicals. This production of “Les Misérables” is no exception and includes such flourishes as a massive, revolving corkscrew of a set design that allows its actors to ascend above the action, but more often casts the viewer’s attention to the wretchedness below.  This design is especially effective at highlighting the initial hope then despair of the student-led Paris rebellion.

The cast here is superb, with Robert Wilde demonstrating enough stage presence and vocal talents to encompass the larger than life Jean Valjean. Rod Thomas’ brooding Inspector Javert also works especially in regards to him being able to flesh out the motivation for his relentless pursuit of Valjean.  Read the rest of this entry »

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