Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Preview: Principal Principle/Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven of Chicago

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Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

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This summer Chicago audiences are given another chance to see “Principal Principle,” a timely tale examining the potential polarizing effects of assigning corporate data-gathering systems to the educative process in an attempt to ascertain broad-based student “success,” while holding teachers responsible for the necessarily weighted outcomes. Set in a Chicago public high school, playwright Joe Zarrow, an artistic associate at Theatre Seven, has created characters that initially seem stereotypical, a useful device in telling what seems so complex a story. And yet they become beautifully fleshed, and these fulsome creations do not detract from the focused plotting of what might be expected to feel lecture-like; these are very real people, approaching a challenge they were never trained to meet, each in her own particular way, based on her skill set, while unable to fully commit to a system that considers each student a statistic rather than an individual, to be reached, positively affected and released into a world with some semblance of an academic and a social toolkit.

Four English teachers share, examine, cajole, quarrel and teach each other extremely hard lessons in their shared office. Working in a “middle of the road neighborhood” with a “ninety-five-percent African-American” student population, the women are widely varied in their approach to the onslaught of corporate Change Management that has travelled from the world of business to the public school classroom. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Othello/The Gift Theatre

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(L to R) Kareem Bandealy  and Michael Patrick Thornton

Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton

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“O these men, these men!” sighs Desdemona (played by Brittany Burch), who is soon to be murdered by her jealous husband, Othello. She is confiding her bafflement to her friend Emilia (Darci Nalepa), who will meet the same fate at the hands of her husband, Iago. Othello’s paranoid rage and Iago’s duplicity and hatred are like the storm roiling the sea around the play’s island setting, chaotic and destructive forces that crash down hardest on the women these soldiers of empire are pledged to protect.

The Gift Theatre’s clear, strong and elegant version of “Othello” captures both the furious momentum and thematic nuances of Shakespeare’s examination of race, patriarchy and authority. Director Jonathan Berry and his skilled cast and crew have brought to the Gift’s tiny stage a production that grips us from the first moment and does not let go. Dan Stratton’s abstract and austere set, Christian Gero’s evocative musical segues and Sarah Hughey’s subtle, noir-style lighting never distract us from the dramatic essentials of language, movement and gesture—which is to say, the acting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Men Should Weep/Griffin Theatre Company

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(l to r) Ashley Neal, Christina Gorman, Roxanne Saylor and Lori Myers/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ashley Neal, Christina Gorman, Roxanne Saylor and Lori Myers/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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It’s been thirty years since Ena Lamont Stewart’s “Men Should Weep” was last produced in the USA and I’d wager a rampant run of Stateside revivals is unlikely. It’s steeped in a thick working-class Glasgow dialect. Despite its standing as one of “One Hundred Plays of the Century” per the National Theatre of London’s take on the twentieth, this far into the twenty-first the show offers nothing audiences haven’t seen. And the whole thing clocks in closer to three hours than two. But Stewart’s script provides a showcase for a fine ensemble and that’s exactly the sort of cast Griffin Theatre Company has assembled.

From the title you might think the men keep their softer emotions under wraps, and you’d be half right. While downtrodden dad John Morrison checks his sadness for most of the play, his son Alec (the other main male) is a weepy, pathetic, despicable crybaby. They’re both quick to raise their hands in anger, though. Among the many societal concerns addressed here by Lamont Stewart, the meaning of masculinity is of high importance. While the elder Morrison often struggles with that demanding breadwinning duty of traditional manhood and his view of women is typically condescending for his era, John does exhibit strength and an unshakable sense of responsibility. Alec, conversely, fails as a man and by any measure of humanity. He’s helpless, cuckolded, shiftless and alternately groveling and physically abusive to his wife Isa. If there’s any mystery, it’s how John and his saintly wife Maggie have raised such a wretch. Times are tough for men and women in this Depression-era tenement, but only Alec and his selfish, dishonest, cruel wife are utterly vile. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Gun Show/16th Street Theater

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Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

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Everyone has an opinion about guns. And everyone has a “gun story.” Whether it’s tragic, a tale of survival or just something from the news, everyone has a story that deals with guns. “The Gun Show,” directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, at 16th Street Theater explores various stories of one person, playwright EM Lewis, and her complex relationship with these weapons.

In this world premiere, 16th Street Theater artistic associate Juan Francisco Villa recites Lewis’ script exactly as directed in her rules: “1. Never put down the script. 2. Don’t leave anything out. 3. Don’t stop until the end.” It’s not often that a playwright is in the audience at every show to see if these rules are being followed, but in this case, the playwright is also the show’s main character; Villa was chosen to tell her story. There are several moments where a flashlight, like the kind a police officer would use, is turned toward Lewis—to call her out on something or to ask a question. When this happens, she never speaks, only gestures, and after a short amount of time, Villa continues to recite the script. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Qualms/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Karen Aldridge,  Keith Kupferer,  Arrington, Greg Stuhr,  Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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With the way that the phrase polyamory has been tossed around over the last few years you would think that modern social psychologists invented the concept. And according to a flurry of recent articles with titles like “Why Polyamory May Be The Answer To Your Dating Woes” and “There Is Life Outside Of Monogamy, And It Actually Works Amazingly Well” there are more and more people who seem to think that they—and perhaps their significant other(s)—would benefit from such arrangements. So Bruce Norris’ new play investigating “the lifestyle,” as a character calls it, enjoying its world premiere at Steppenwolf right now, seems right on time for the sexual zeitgeist.

Except his play is not about this hot topic, it’s about swingers. And though a character tosses the word “polyamory” out there in reference to their lifestyle at one point, it seems incongruous with their actions. For the record, while both involve open relationships, polyamory is the practice of being involved in multiple, ongoing, loving relationships, while swinging is essentially monogamy plus open sex. Since the setting for this show involves four distinct couples meeting for a sex party (from which they will all return to their separate homes), it seems that they fall firmly into the latter rather than the former. But then, maybe I’m wrong, the swingers here don’t get much time to discuss the specifics of their lifestyle. They’re mostly just being ranted at by the male half of an uneasy and on-edge new couple. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brigadoon/Goodman Theatre

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Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

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A few days ago, a friend and I were joking about the plot of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” when he quipped, “What a silly story,” then, quickly realizing what he was saying in the same thought, he added “unlike most musicals.” Exactly. The tale of a mystical town in the Scottish Highlands that only appears for one day every hundred years is hardly an outlier in a world of singing and dancing cats or workingmen who build big ships not for money but for metaphor. But it is quaint, with its midcentury notions of utopianism grounded in a rustic, rural time capsule. And it is strange, its peculiarities foregrounded in director Rachel Rockwell’s stunning Goodman debut. But its strangeness holds its charm for me, with the town of “Brigadoon” as a stand-in for a particular vision of heaven, and the incursion of us Americans resembling the Fall From Grace in the Garden of Eden. (Other things I found swirling around in my brain in some of the slower parts, which this imperfect work has,  included the even-sillier “Gilligan’s Island,” with its comic—as opposed to tragic here—explorations of the challenges of mating in a small-sample population without mobility, and the musical “Riverdance,” which I admittedly only know through the incessant television commercials that once ran. Rockwell’s lords of the dance, though, are Scottish, not Irish, with tartan kilts, bagpipes and Highland dancing, which she blends deftly with ballet, leading to some mesmerizing choreography, most notably in the festive “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/Drury Lane Theatre

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(L to R) Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner

Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner

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There’s a certain magic to academic competitions. Debate teams and Academic Decathlon members understand the focus and determination it takes to stand in front of judges and face what can be one of an adolescent’s biggest fears: losing. Unlike the comfort one can experience in these team activities, there is a competition where the pressure is all on a sole individual and he or she alone determines the outcome of the competition, where remembering that “I” comes before “E” except after “C” (in most cases) can be the difference between winning a juice box or going home with a trophy. This, of course, is the basis for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre.

The cast of spellers is hilariously brought to life by Eli Branson (William Barfée, who spells with his magic foot), Carolyn Braver (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a girl who wants to win so America will love her and her two dads will be proud), Zack Colonna (Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own clothes and wears a cape made out of a shower curtain), Jordan DeLeon (Chip Tolentino, last year’s Spelling Bee champ), Landree Flemming (Olive Ostrovski, a girl who believes her dictionary is her best friend), and Stephenie Soohyun Park (Marcy Park, a perfectionist who wants to prove she can be okay with being imperfect).  The wonderful cast is completed by Johnathan Butler-Duplessis (Mitch Mahoney, the Bee’s “comfort counselor), Joe Dempsey (Douglas Panch, the vice principal of the local junior high school) and Frances Limoncelli (Rona Lisa Peretti, a local real estate agent who won the 3rd annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Last Ship/Broadway In Chicago

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The Last Ship

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In the heart of Times Square there is a building called the TKTS Discount Booth; same-day tickets to Broadway shows can be purchased there at discounted prices. The queue of audience hopefuls is always many customers deep, and to speed along the process, employees move through the throngs answering questions about shows, locations, prices and where you can get the best pizza slice within walking distance. In my experience, the majority of the patrons are of the female persuasion, and hands-down the most frequently asked question is, “Which show is my boyfriend/fiancé/husband most likely to enjoy?” Beginning September 29, the answer to that question will be “The Last Ship.”

The show’s Tony Award-winning artistic pedigree doesn’t disappoint: John Logan’s book is poignant and funny and honest, frequently all at once, and the unflappable Joe Mantello brings his particular blend of heart and intellect to the direction. But it is the singular stamp of Grammy Award-winner Sting that permeates every moment of the production. Composer/lyricist of the mostly sung piece, Sting makes it easy to forget that this will be his Broadway debut. One of the measures of the most talented and seasoned creators of both music and lyrics for the stage is that while the songs and musical moments for a particular show are as varied as the story’s characters and situations, the score remains cohesive unto itself. To come out of the gate with such sweeping understanding of and dexterity for the form is past refreshing; even for an artist of Sting’s stature, it is astonishing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: This Is Our Youth/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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The living space created for Steppenwolf’s intimate upstairs staging of this Kenneth Lonergan play is so cozy and lived-in that while heading toward my seat I was tempted to instead plop down centerstage and put that copy of my favorite Frank Zappa bootleg on the turntable and make myself at home. Alas, like an obedient non-participant I went up to my assigned seat for this Broadway-bound revival and considered how to dissect the expected.

Expected, but entertaining and rewarding—that’s Lonergan’s script. I can’t fathom it was any more revelatory when it debuted in the mid-nineties, but I also doubt any of its emotional impact has waned in the intervening years. There are plenty of laughs as well. To deliver so much humor and heart with nary an unexpected twist is the mark of some solid wordplay.

The wayward privileged young trio here at the dawn of the ghastly, cutthroat Reagan era seem to have all the cynicism, disappointment, antagonism and dread of their crushed and cruel unseen parents without the distant pleasure of having ever experienced the Boomers’ glorious delusions of hope. Rather, there’s a specter of death that hangs heavier as the show moves along. Drug-dealing Dennis (a fantastically scene-stealing Kieran Culkin) fears being too much like his cancer-stricken, henpecked father. (It’s likely not a coincidence that it’s prostate cancer, the same disease that killed the show’s musical touchstone Zappa.) Yet in his healthy youth he’s much as he describes his father in his prime—a headstrong, confident star at the center of his milieu. It’s just that his father was an art star and Denny shines as dope connection to other well-to-do New York kids. Denny also dreads the possibly imagined homicidal wrath of his pal’s father, a fearsome lingerie magnate. His pal Warren (Michael Cera, increasingly intriguing as the night goes on) idolizes Dennis and shrinks in his presence for much of the first act. More morbidly we also learn, from one of Denny’s limitless withering attacks on Warren’s character, that Warren is haunted by his own sister’s murder. There’s yet further death ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Godspell/Marriott Theatre

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Brian Bohr and cast/Photo: Peter Coombs

Brian Bohr and cast/Photo: Peter Coombs

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Those of an age to recall the 1971 version of the John-Michael Tebelak/Stephen Schwartz musical “Godspell” are in for some surprises while enjoying the 2012 revised version on stage at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre. A score that, with one exception, fell on the ears as more folky-than-rocky, with gentle, repeating phrases that could lull an audience into a contemplative spell, coupled with a book that suggested youthful players swept up into the world of a Christ-figure teaching truths born of ancient doctrines, capable of firing the imagination and shaping the morals of the cast and the audience as well, tells the same story in director Matt Raftery’s production, albeit with a definite twenty-first-century sensibility.

From the top of the show, the company is introduced in the musically complicated, complex prologue—a Tower of Babel argued by philosophers—as contemporary business people dressed for Wall Street and arguing endlessly in a world of constant-contact; the moment the first cellphone appears, there can be no confusion that the cast is adult, and that they are us. Although the office attire is stripped away, revealing underdressed costumes that vacillate between the flower-children concept so often attributed to the show and the clown notion more in keeping with the original production, I found it difficult to accept them as innocents. Read the rest of this entry »