Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff, Deirdre O’Connell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Late in the second act of playwright Mona Mansour’s marvelous “The Way West,” a pizza-delivery guy gets into a tussle over declined credit cards with the play’s protagonists and exclaims, “At least I’m solvent!” It’s one of those wonderfully terrible moments in the theater, when the truth slices like a lawnmower gone amok, taking out not only the subjects of the insult as well as its deliverer, who’s just admitted that he’s thirty-three years old and has lost his “real” job, but also us, the audience, as we realize how trivial our American life has become, where we measure our self-worth and sense of accomplishment on whether we pay our credit card bills on time, on whether we’re solvent.

Few things create more stress in marriages, in families, in life than money and the lack thereof, yet our theater so rarely addresses commonplace financial matters, preferring instead to kick around the more easily dramatic, if far less universal, arcs of corruption, fraud and theft. This simultaneous freshness and familiarity of subject make this world-premiere production especially compelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The President/Oracle Theatre

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RECOMMENDED

joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-or-3173022665-OHungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar loved this country enough to begin citizenship proceedings. But he had no love for capitalist deal-making; his sharp criticism of American business arrangements and human manipulation shines a light on questionable ethics through fast-paced humor.

The detailed Mr. Norrison (John Arthur Lewis) is set to join his family on a well-deserved mountain vacation. But his naïve charge, Lydia (Michelle M. Oliver), the daughter of Norrison’s wealthy and influential customer, announces that she is married and having a baby with Tony (Travis Delgado), a militant, communist cabdriver. In a flurry of wheeling and dealing, Norrison proceeds to transform everyman Tony into a titled captain of industry.

The ensemble brings the right energy to their broadly drawn characters; Lewis is smoothly corporate in his brokering and decision-making and Oliver endows her character with the sensual daffiness Lydia requires. The suitably ardent Delgado negotiates the transition between radical firebrand to titan of industry with confidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pinkolandia/16th Street Theater

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Maritza Cervantes and Miguel Nunez/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Maritza Cervantes and Miguel Nunez/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

RECOMMENDED

Artistic director Ann Filmer (who directs  ”Pinkolandia”) and the 16th Street Theater stay in stride in this multilayered, culturally significant, fictional retelling of a refugee family from Chile assimilating into 1982 Wisconsin. At the heart of the story are twelve-year-old Beny (Maritza Cervantes) and her eight-year-old sister Gaby (Hannah Gomez). Beny has been in the states since she was three, when her parents Tomas (Carlos Diaz) and Camila Rodriguez (Stephanie Diaz) were forced to leave Chile after a military coup d’etat in 1973. There are several revealing story lines: an “uncle” (Miguel Nunez) comes back to the family, reigniting the revolutionary spirit; the children are having problems assimilating into the Wisconsin neighborhood; and the youngest daughter is repeatedly ignored to the point of a total withdrawal. In all, this is a play about estrangement and a family trying to forgive themselves and their countrymen in their past, while trying to cobble together a better future. But does this desire for a better life come at too much sacrifice and guilt? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Our Class/Remy Bumppo

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Our Class fireThe World War II massacre in Jedwabne, Poland was long considered to be one of the worst Nazi war crimes; hundreds of Polish Jews were trapped in a barn and burned alive. But while Poles historically blamed occupying Nazi forces, recent findings determined that an angry Polish mob served as the real killers. Tadeusz Slobodzianek tries to make sense of the seemingly senseless, looking at this complicated impulse to turn on friends, neighbors and in this case, classmates.

The piece follows schoolmates as they endure the shifting political sands of 1930s and 1940s Poland. The town’s communities are slowly marginalized; the Jews are ostracized as prayer is introduced into the classroom by the Catholics, and the Catholics are then pushed aside by the invading Soviet Union as the local Catholic Club is transformed into a cinema. Hostilities reach the boiling point as the Nazis invade Poland; it doesn’t take much German influence for neighbor to turn against neighbor. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Place in the Woods/The Fine Print Theatre Company

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RECOMMENDED

FPT-3A topical family drama that reaches its true heights in its comic moments, The Fine Print’s production of Erik Gernand’s “A Place In The Woods” is unassuming and refreshingly unpretentious. Seating the audience on either of two sides of the homespun sparse kitchen which is the sole setting lends a fly-on-the-wall feeling as we witness a personal, familial tale wherein the decay of aging leads to revelations over a tragedy that occurred in the glow of youth—a heartbreaking fall from innocence that has sullied all the years since with deceit, distrust, and lingering loathing.

Shaun (James Bould)—gay, urban, successful, worldly, impatient—returns to the small-town scene of his teenage misery with his own thoughtful and inquisitive teen son Alex (Jacob Bond) in tow. The family matriarch (Barbara Berndt) has been acting increasingly alarmingly—the onset of Alzheimer’s is presumably to blame—and the begrudgingly responsible Shaun returns to the rickety house where mom and Shaun’s less reliable older brother (Mike Rice) still reside. All the festering sarcasm amongst the adults of the family stems from the death of the older brother’s best high-school pal, who it turns out was also Shaun’s first love. The most somber moments ring true and nearly all the comic bits—of which there are a welcome many—are as funny as any of the better sitcoms but with more emotional honesty. Some of what falls in the middle of the spectrum between tears and laughter affects a bit of an After School Special earnest prosaicness but this is outweighed by the heft of both the more dramatic and the more hilarious exchanges. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: God’s Work/Albany Park Theater Project

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

“God’s Work” isn’t a theater piece that unfolds linearly, but more of a concept constructed from moods and feelings, with scenes often tying together or melting into each other in a dreamlike fashion. The evocative lighting design by Jeremy Getz and the frequently beautiful compositions by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel play across Scott C. Neale’s stony gray multilevel set to create a sense of unreality that permeates the story. But, in fact, this unreality—a harrowing tale of abuse and redemption—is based on a true story, gathered and told by the Albany Park Theater Project in their fourth play produced on a Goodman stage.

Constantly threatened and punished by their dictatorial, religiously fundamentalist father (a stern Vincent K. Meredith), a constantly growing group of children (every few scenes a few new kids are “born” and added to the ensemble) seek refuge amongst each other as they try to please their uncaring father and understand why they suffer. “They’re good kids and they do what God wants,” replies one sibling, heartbreakingly, when asked why other kids at school seem not to be dealing with the torments that they are. Among this group is Rachel (a spunky Maidenwena Alba) who not only serves as our narrator at the opening and closing of the piece but gives us a character to focus on and follow in this tangle of children. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show/About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising

Recommended Shows, Stand-Up, Theater, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »
Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

This gal’s got some real balls. Is that too blue for you? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist such a nice opening. Oh, she’s got one of those too.

Lest you think I’m being too irreverent, be advised that the protagonist of “Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” is frequently in your face about the uncommonly dual genitalia s/he possesses. Portrayed by actress Fawzia Mirza in a commanding and at times fierce near-solo turn in About Face Theatre/Silk Road Rising’s downtown production, the titular character delights—like any good comedian—in confronting the audience. If you’re squeamish about anatomy or gender designations, be forewarned. And if you’re British, be prepared to bear the brunt of an increasingly fiery assault on your imperial history that surpasses even the abuse heaped upon Brahman/i’s sidekick, a hapless but sympathetic (and sympathizing) bass player who commits no less a sin than daring to sit, uncommitted, partly in the dark and partly in the spotlight reserved for the star.

It’s Brahman/i who really straddles the line between dark and light, and so many other borders as well—at times making a case for understanding and tolerance, and at other times venting with a self-assured righteousness befitting one named after supreme, infinite reality. Also like the Hindu concept of Brahman, our hero in this play escapes gender classification. S/he flirts with such designation—and with some of the audience as well—but don’t expect any easy answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Thinner Than Water/Gift Theatre

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RECOMMENDED

TTW_3[1]

Lynda Newton and Brittany Burch/Photo: Claire Demos

That old adage about the strength of family ties is given a careful re-examination in Melissa Ross’ “Thinner Than Water.” Relentless from the start, the play begins with three half-siblings debating whether or not they should tend to their very sick father (a chain-smoking, emotionally unavailable man his children call Martin instead of Dad). Taking affront to this imposition is the oldest sibling Renee (played perfectly by Lynda Newton) who bitterly (and quite accurately) predicts that she will be the one left doing all the hard work. Cassie (Brittany Burch, who wisely plays her character with more edge than vulnerability) and stoner Gary (a very good Michael Patrick Thornton) are more forgiving of the old man and are willing to go out and “win the better person award.” Also in this mix is their father’s current girlfriend Gwen (Donna McGough), a seemingly flighty, non-stop talker. In between dealing with this sudden drama, the three siblings also confront struggling relationships and their own limitations with intimacy and trust. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Songs From An Unmade Bed/Pride Films & Plays

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

(l to r)  Jordan Phelps and Kevin Webb

Jordan Phelps and Kevin Webb

The musical or operetta or opera or lyric theater phoneme (depending upon whom you speak with and how empty the champagne bottle) “Candide” was birthed by Voltaire, and enjoyed the word-workings and “improvements” of Lillian Hellman, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri and John Wells. But the amorphous masterpiece is held together by the duct tape of Leonard Bernstein’s music. Compositionally, harmonically, thematically, the music drags all of the wordsmiths’ brilliant meanderings into a solidified celebration. And this remains the accepted formula for a successful musical evening of theater; the task of stitching together the genius of the book-writer, the librettist, and multiple credited- and uncredited-script doctors falls squarely upon the shoulders of the composer.

But must it always be so? What if a myriad of composers contribute to a work that congeals by the alchemy of a single lyricist? Pride Films & Plays’ production of “Songs From An Unmade Bed” does exactly that. What is more cutting edge than a lyric entertainment that supports music from composers as far afield as contemporary opera giant Jake Heggie, and singer, songwriter, actress and composer Debra Barsha? Lyricist Mark Campbell, who has been profiled in Opera News as one of the twenty-five people “posed…to become major forces in opera in the coming decade,” is proven by this production to be a person who tells stories, stories that we all want to hear, to take to our hearts, and then take home and hash and rehash. The “cross-over” between musical theater and opera for which we must revere and blame that Sondheim fellow continues to redefine what brings a contemporary audience to a seat in a theater. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sandalwood/Tympanic Theatre Company and the side project

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RECOMMENDED

Sandalwood_001_WEBCreators want the best for the things they make; every song composed should win a Grammy, every book can be the great American novel. Given that artists always dream big, it’s a bitter disappointment when an impulse evolves into something they hadn’t planned on. Just ask a screenwriter.

A carpenter (a suitably laconic Sean Thomas) tracks down his creation (livewire Anthony Stamilio) through the rough-n-tumble West. After drinkin’, lovin’ and killin’, the carpenter’s puppet has become human, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. Pinocchio’s a real boy, and that ain’t good.

Thomas’ sadness captures the horror his work wracks up and Stamilio’s goofy energy belies the devastation his character leaves behind. A revulsion-tinged monologue from Jillian Rea creepily communicates what it’s like to be the object of this creature’s affections. Read the rest of this entry »