Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Lookingglass Alice/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Lindsey Noel Whiting/Photo: Liz Lauren

Lindsey Noel Whiting/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Nobody could dislike the 2014 version of “Lookingglass Alice,” not even a Scrooge who had wandered away from one of the several “Christmas Carols” playing nearby. Lookingglass Theatre Company’s circus-style production, mounted in association with The Actors Gymnasium, is the perfect holiday family show, countering seasonal over-sentimentality disorder with a bracing blast of delightful and occasionally breathtaking nonsense.

Lewis Carroll’s barrage of dream logic leaves no Victorian value standing, as the author slyly deconstructs every certitude and tidy moral in sight. The masterful adaptation by David Catlin (who also directs) gets right to the heart of Carroll’s coolly subversive approach to childhood and life, integrating and balancing the writer’s linguistic anarchy with acrobatic spectacle and jaw-dropping theatrical effects.

The profusion of belovedly weird characters – the off-with-her-head/out-of-her-head Red Queen, beguiling Cheshire Cat (here grinless for some reason), feckless White Knight and reckless Humpty Dumpty, etc. etc. – are, amazingly, portrayed by a cast of just five, including one of two Alices, who alternate nights for this physically demanding role. I saw Lindsey Noel Whiting, whose droll, wise-beyond-her-years Alice is as lithe as a kitten and strong as a horse, swooping and twirling her way through the high-ceilinged circus ring of a space. (Alice #2 is Lauren Hirte, who starred in the original 2005 run.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tamer of Horses/Teatro Vista

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(l to r) Juan Villa and Joshua Torrez

Juan Villa and Joshua Torrez

RECOMMENDED

Tales of troubled youth and the teachers who want to get through to them have long been illustrated in books, plays and films. Those stories remain relevant because violence by and toward youth has yet to cease. Director Ron OJ Parson explores this theme in Teatro Vista’s production of “Tamer of Horses.”

Many are familiar with the idea of “bad” kids. Many are also familiar with the concept that there are no “bad” kids, just “bad” teachers. While both the former and the latter are debatable, William Mastrosimone’s play concentrates on that certain something everyone has that can be dangerous: potential. When potential is harnessed for good, one’s abilities can reach heights of which many others might only dream. Likewise, when potential is harvested for evil, walls can form that an entire village would have to fight against to tear down and change.

This production tackles all of the aforementioned and illustrates a bit of what the writer does well—challenge the idea of balancing education with the realities of life. Mastrosimone did this especially well in the 1994 film, “With Honors.” In “Tamer of Horses,” the lead male isn’t struggling to finish his thesis in an Ivy League institution while learning valuable life lessons. Rather, the student here, Hector (Joshua Torrez), is illiterate and is running away from a youth home. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Goodman Theatre has perfected the holiday show in its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” with superb, consciously colorblind casting, terrific scenic design by Todd Rosenthal—including a rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge’s home that seems to contort in expressionistic ways at times, as well as backdrops and streetscapes that create a holiday-card version of London—and, above all, a commitment to Charles Dickens’ text, which seems to have otherwise suffered from cultural amnesia as a result of its cartoonification by the mass-merchandising machine. By blending the bite of the words with the pleasant taste of period-authentic music and dances, the production manages to deliver everything you’d want from a Christmas show, that is, a meaningful message softened by a strong current of joy and hope. And though one could certainly argue this is not a show for young kids as it’s full of dark, adult themes, that argument would be a lost cause. And so Goodman makes the show accessible to the little ones with strokes of broad physical humor and ghosts that excite and certainly scare their share of the wee ones. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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(l to r) Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Recently a friend asked me what my favorite show of 2014 was. I didn’t have a good answer for him. This has a lot to do with the fact that I see more shows than the average theatergoer (complimentary tickets make it pretty easy) and so my mental rolodex is pretty stuffed. But a part of it is that the sheer number of pretty good to pretty bad to pretty mediocre shows can make it hard to differentiate. I can’t recall the diamonds because my brain is so full of rough. These are shows that, regardless of quality, feel like shows that are being done because, well, because a show “needed” to be done. Everyone performs the duties required of their job description—including the audience members—and the whole thing feels like work. Not “work” as in it seemed especially difficult, but “work” as in it’s something you do not because you want to but because it has to be done.

“A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” is not one of these shows. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. It is seventy-five-minutes of pure, unadulterated joy. If I could turn in a review that was just 500 smiley face emoticons, I would. That is both what the show is, and how it made me feel. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: It’s Christmas Goddamnit!/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

RECOMMENDED

Christmas is fast approaching. For those unfamiliar with the season, in the world of “It’s Christmas Goddamnit!” it’s that merry time of year when even the kookiest of families gather together under a shared roof to enjoy a collective meal while emotionally tormenting each other, reveling in both their familial similarities and their personality differences. Director Charley Carroll, along with a solid group of writer/actors, has created a cast of characters with eccentricities and mannerisms that highlight each comedian’s specific comedic strengths. To be clear up front, it is very seldom that any of these characters feel like real people; emotional realism takes a clear backseat to setups and punchlines, both physical and verbal.

Patriarch Bill (Jimmy Pennington) is welcoming his three children home for the holidays, along with his wealthy but ornery brother Eli (a frank and cocksure Lee Russell). He’s also invited his new bride Bev (Rosie Moan) and her mentally unstable and socially awkward son Cory (a stoic Ryan Ben). It’s only been two years since Bill’s first wife—the mother of his children—passed away and he’s hesitant to tell his kids that he’s remarried. As it turns out, his hesitancy may be well-founded as his adult children—a perpetually single tae-bo instructor (Bridget Ballek), a perpetually unemployed manchild (Jeffrey Murdoch) and a perpetually condescending psychiatrist (Jo Scott, a standout, constantly seeming to barely conceal a ready-to-break-chaaracter grin)—are perhaps not quite ready to welcome a new stepmother. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Drury Lane Theatre for Young Adults

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Killian Hughes, Andrew Weir

RECOMMENDED

The tale of an old miser who has no interest in the holiday spirit until his past, present and future come haunting him one Christmas Eve is fairly well known. Though the story is told often, there is something that remains fascinating about the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

This Drury Lane production, directed by Scott Calcagno, is especially geared toward engaging young people. Many darker moments of the tale, like Scrooge’s visit from Marley’s ghost, have more of an element of surprise than terror, which hopefully limits the number of nightmares a parent might have to wake up to and deal with. Children in the audience the morning I attended were highly engaged with the performances, often laughing in comedic moments and frequently enchanted by the “theater magic” in front of them. However, there were several moments when the fog was a bit too heavy for those sitting in the first few rows, which easily disturbed the young patrons and pulled the rest of the audience out of the show. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Iphigenia in Aulis/Court Theatre

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Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Watching a Greek drama is odd, because your moral compass gets completely rewritten. There’s a moment in Nicholas Rudall’s new translation of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” when Clytemnestra says to her husband Agamemnon something along the lines of “Remember when you met me and murdered my (first) husband and killed my two sons in front of me?” Clytemnestra then goes on to point out how she eventually got over that and forgave him and became his loving wife and bore a gaggle of beautiful children, one of which (the titular Iphigenia) Agamemnon is going to sacrifice to the gods so that he and the rest of the Grecians can go fight a war. It struck me as I was listening to these words that I am watching a play in which a man murdered his wife’s first husband and her children and then married her and yet… that fact is incidental to the action currently at hand. It’s barely relevant. A footnote.

I repeat, he murdered her husband and both of her sons in front of her and the entire reason she brings it up is to point out how she totes got over it.

If I saw a modern-day play wherein someone dropped that little tidbit in the middle of an argument, it would stop the play dead in its tracks. There is no possible way that the play could be about anything other than that. It would be “the big secret” that gets revealed halfway through Act 2. Or maybe the play would be a marriage that pulls double duty as a prolonged case of Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Agamemnon’s act would not be treated as incidental. It would be very, very integral. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Humans/American Theater Company

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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 »