Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike/The Goodman Theatre

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 (L to R) Mary Beth Fisher , Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo: Liz Lauren

(L to R) Mary Beth Fisher , Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

The opening moments of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are pure Chekhov. A brother and sister sit in their country home staring at a pond, hoping to see a blue heron and marinating in their regrets. Then the sister propositions her (adopted) brother, their Jamaican housekeeper shows up shouting disturbing prophecies and pretty soon a half-naked movie actor is dancing around for all to see. That’s when you remember that this isn’t Chekhov. This is Christopher Durang doing Chekhov. Instead of “I’m a seagull,” it’s “I’m a wild turkey.”

Directed by Steve Scott, the Goodman’s production features Goodman mainstay Mary Beth Fisher as Masha, a bitterly aging movie starlet who has returned home to inform her much more withdrawn siblings, Vanya (Ross Lehman) and Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) that she is selling the family home in which the pair currently reside. Masha’s much-younger boyfriend Spike (Jordan Brown) is also in tow. He’s an up-and-coming actor but already a master idiot. Masha feels threatened by Spike’s attraction to Nina (Rebecca Buller), the neighbor girl who is herself an aspiring actress. Sonia and Vanya feel threatened by pretty much everything. The housekeeper, Cassandra, takes after her namesake and practices voodoo; if it weren’t for the utter commitment of actress E. Faye Butler, the character would feel just as problematic as she actually is. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown/Pride Films & Plays

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Nelson Rodriguez/Photo: David Zak

Nelson Rodriguez/Photo: David Zak

RECOMMENDED

There is something magical about sitting in an audience and witnessing the moment that a piece of theater officially becomes dated. Despite being twenty years old, Guillermo Reyes’ play “Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown” stands the test of time heartily. Sure, the references are solidly in the mid-nineties throughout, but most of them still ring with truth. That is, until one of the characters notes that gay marriage isn’t allowed legally in America. The timing of this production by Pride Films & Plays couldn’t be more perfect. The electric feeling within the theater is palpable immediately following that observation, as the viewer realizes that what the play is addressing is now historical fact, rather than current reality. The freshness of the recent decision of the Supreme Court creates a somewhat surreal viewing experience.

Director Sandra Marquez stages the show in a tight space quite effectively. Nelson Rodriguez bops around the stage from character to character while grabbing costumes off of the walls and quickly shifting into new personas. Each character is drawn broadly, but then honed to a sharpness that opens wounds and lets their depth come out. I could not be more impressed with Rodriguez’s range. He tackles seven separate characters and each is uniquely crafted in a memorable way. Were this not clearly a one-man show, it would be easy to think back on the performance and compare the efforts of the various actors in the show. That is how distinct Rodriguez’s characters are. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All Our Tragic/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Geoff Button and Walter Briggs/Photo: Evan Hanover

Geoff Button and Walter Briggs/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

One might think that Sean Graney’s title for his play/adaptation/mashup/opus “All Our Tragic” is a bit of playful hyperbole. But nope. It’s all in there. From Prometheus on the rock to Herakles butchering his children to Oedipus and Troy and Orestes’ revenge on Klytaimnestra, “All Our Tragic” is an entire survey course in Greek tragedy crammed into a single twelve-hour play.

Oh yes, about that. It’s twelve hours long. And it is definitely worth it.

Adapted by Graney from all thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies, “All Our Tragic” is as liberal with its source material as it is with its blood effects. It isn’t necessarily meant to be an “accurate” adaptation of the classic tragedies—which were themselves a remixing of mythology, history and commentary. It treats the plays like raw ores that Graney melts down to then forge into something bigger, grander and truly epic.

And as much as the play is a never-ending parade of death and misery and woe, it is also shot through with irreverence. The play isn’t only alive, it is also keenly self-aware. And that’s good, because Greek tragedy is weird, man. Dragons and spear brides and witches, and… . But by allowing the play to laugh at itself, Graney pre-empts our own ironic detachment. We are allowed to laugh with the play, rather than at it. And then we cry with it too. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Moby Dick/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

RECOMMENDED

“Moby Dick” is the leviathan of American literature, diving deeper than any other work into the mysteries of human nature and destiny. Shakespearean in scope, biblical in flavor, Herman Melville’s nineteenth-century novel most memorably gave us the one-legged, lightning-scarred figure of Captain Ahab, whose mad quest for the white whale that “dismasted” him turns the voyage of the Pequod into a Jim Jones-style death cult.

Director-adapter David Catlin, fresh from his spectacular “Lookingglass Alice,” shows he is as comfortable with the sublime as the whimsical, crafting a gripping version of the novel that captures both its epic scale and sharp characterizations. In association with The Actors Gymnasium, Catlin and company have created a kinetic, circus-like theater space that engulfs the audience and makes Melville’s watery world come alive. Set, lighting and sound designers Courtney O’Neill, William C. Kirkham and Rick Sims deserve an ovation for their depiction of the sea’s moods, from tropical languor to typhoons that mirror Ahab’s inner turmoil. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Storm/Moon Fool and Walkabout Theater Company

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McCambridge Dowd­-Whipple

McCambridge Dowd-Whipple (front) and ensemble

RECOMMENDED

At first, given the emphasis on magic and the dirgey, chant-oriented music, one could be forgiven for thinking “Storm,” a collaboration between international collective Moon Fool and Chicago’s Walkabout Theater Company, might be a sneak peak of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s forthcoming adaptation of “The Tempest,” as envisioned by Teller (of Penn & Teller) to the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Yet Walkabout and Moon Fool take more liberties with Shakespeare’s text than I imagine even CST is comfortable with. As it stands, purists may want to avoid this one. Everyone else should come right in.

In this production, the choreography is really the main event, though it can be a double-edged sword depending on your proclivity for the highly interpretive. On one hand, the invigorating movement regularly deepens and abstracts the play’s themes of loneliness and the illusion of agency. On the other, like the titular storm itself, it tends to wash away this production’s foundation. As a work in progress, there is no reason to believe that creator/director Anna-Helena McLean won’t temper her own admirable impulses toward acrobatics in order to better facilitate her fascinating adaptation. As it stands, this iteration is a sophisticated yet feral dance performance that contains illusions to Shakespeare. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: City of Angels/Marriott Theatre

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City of Angels

Summer Naomi Smart/Photo: Amy Boyle

RECOMMENDED

I thought a show where the colorful people stayed on one side of the stage while the colorless people stayed on the other, plot lines fizzled, and the leading players were a screenwriter and his alter ego but all the best tunes were given to three-and-a-half women was up against too many challenges. I didn’t see how it would have a life after Broadway. How to stage it? How to salve the wounded book? Eleven 1990 Tony nominations and six wins argued.

Marriott’s new production gave me comeuppance. As staged in-the-round by director Nick Bowling, a world of reality and another of cinema exist so closely and interchangeably that scene changes fly by, characters with counterparts in another world can be believably portrayed by one actor with the switch of a wig or a tablecloth, and these worlds can collide with élan. Thomas M. Ryan’s set, Jesse Klug’s lighting and Nancy Missimi’s costumes are beautifully to blame. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan/Broadway In Chicago

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OnYourFeet

Photo: Matthew Murphy

RECOMMENDED

Seven Grammys. Over 100 million albums sold worldwide. A true-life story that so many can relate to in its triumph and tragedy. That’s the life of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and their incredible rise to fame, brilliantly captured in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” now in its pre-Broadway world premiere here in Chicago.

From stunning costumes (designed by Emilio Sosa—who also did the costumes for “Motown: The Musical”), gorgeous sets, a phenomenal cast, a solid book and, of course, some really great music, this show is absolutely worthy of a Broadway stage.

The show begins as a show like this should—making the audience feel like they are at a concert. A full band is live on stage, colorful lights fill the room and, if you’re sitting close to the stage, you feel the beat of the drums in your chest as the hit “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” begins to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Body + Blood/The Gift Theatre

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L-R: Stephen Spencer, Nicholas Harazin, Lynda Newton, Cyd Blakewell and Gabriel Franken/Photo: Claire Demos

Stephen Spencer, Nicholas Harazin, Lynda Newton, Cyd Blakewell and Gabriel Franken/Photo: Claire Demos

RECOMMENDED

Priests are common characters in American storytelling but they are rarely ever protagonists. They often have a part to play, it’s just never in their own story. So it is refreshingly bracing when William Nedved’s “Body + Blood” gives audiences something rarely seen on the modern stage (or screen or Kindle, for that matter): a story about a man aspiring to become a priest that a) takes his faith in God seriously, b) has nothing to do with child abuse and c) allows this man to be a complete and total screw-up.

Directed by Marti Lyons in a world-premiere production at The Gift Theatre, “Body + Blood” begins with the first of many poor, or at least poorly timed, decisions made by Dan (Nicholas Harazin) in pursuit of priesthood. On a warm summer evening on the porch of the Chicago apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Leah (Cyd Blakewell), Dan informs her that he plans on joining the priesthood. This, of course, also means that the two of them are done. Since she was expecting a marriage proposal, Leah doesn’t take the news all that well. And when Dan’s big sister Monica (Lynda Newton) arrives with her lovable lug of a husband Mick (Stephen Spencer) she laughs him right out of the building. Too her, this is simply another example of Dan running away from commitment. Even Dan’s spiritual advisor Father Alex (Gabriel Franken) starts to have some serious questions as to what is really motivating this decision. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Goldfish/Route 66 Theatre Company

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Goldfish-6

Alex Stage and Francis Guinan/Photo: Rob Zalas

RECOMMENDED

While many adolescents take their parents’ values as a challenge, rarely do they grasp what’s at stake for them. A child’s success can completely reverse years of fatalistic cynicism in a parent. For at least one character in Route 66’s “Goldfish,” the stakes are nothing less than their entire life.

Taking its name from a series of illuminating animal metaphors, “Goldfish” is a play about two single parents (Francis Guinan and Shannon Cochran) and their children (Alex Stage and Tyler Meredith) who fall in love. It is a play that is both astutely funny and agonizingly beautiful. While it implies the issue of balancing protective impulses, it focuses specifically on children’s desire to reprogram their parents’ hardwired linear thinking and the trappings therein.

As the home-wrecker Leo whose pride emerges through layers of pain, Guinan lives up to his well-earned reputation as one of Chicago’s great treasures. His ability to make living poetry is unparalleled and in playwright John Kolvenbach he has found a perfect match. His final monologue, which concludes with him encouraging his own son to “resist” him, left many in the audience—this writer included—in tears. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Birds/Griffin Theatre Company

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(left to right) Keith Neagle, Emily Nichelson and Jodi Kingsley in Griffin Theatre Company's Chicago premiere of THE BIRDS by Conor McPherson, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier and directed by Kevin Kingston.  Photo by Michael Brosilow

Keith Neagle, Emily Nichelson and Jodi Kingsley/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a master of dread. From “The Weir” to “The Seafarer” to “The Shining City” McPherson’s plays have an impeccable knack for slowly turning up the heat—so slowly, in fact, that his audiences barely even notice the temperature rising until they’ve reached full, excruciating boil.

“The Birds” then is an ideal piece for him to adapt. Originally a short story by English writer Daphne du Maurier, “The Birds” is most famous for the 1963 film by Alfred Hitchcock, a man who also knew a thing or two about building suspense. But whereas Hitchcock’s film leaned more toward supernatural horror, McPherson’s is almost entirely psychological. The birds are dangerous, sure, but the people involved are not much better.

The titular avians never even make it onstage in Griffin Theatre’s fine production, directed in its Chicago premiere by Kevin Kingston. They are represented solely by Stephen Ptacek’s chilling soundscapes. And though they are always offstage they are also present from the very beginning. The play opens post-attack with two strangers, Diane (Jodi Kingsley) and Nate (Keith Neagle), holed up in a country home. They are soon joined by a third survivor, Julia (Emily Nichelson). As the three of them focus on the everyday tasks of surviving—dwindling supplies require ventures further and further away from their home base—tensions and affections begin to grow. Diane is, or rather was, a novelist, and spare voice-overs both inform and color the proceedings. Read the rest of this entry »

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