Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Music Hall/TUTA Theatre Chicago

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(l to r) Jeffrey Binder and Darren Hill/ Photo: Anthony La Penna

Jeffrey Binder and Darren Hill/ Photo: Anthony La Penna

RECOMMENDED

Before the production leaves for New York City, TUTA Theatre Chicago’s “Music Hall” is a show that you should make special effort to get to. Zeljko Djukic’s interpretation of the Jean-Luc Lagarce script (translated by Joseph Long) is unlike anything else you’ll see in this city, refreshingly expanding the audience’s horizon through the pure simplicity of action and inaction.

The beauty of the piece stems from the fact that the audience itself must assemble the pieces of story to find the truth of the tale. When the lights first come up, we are treated to a dumb-show bit of clowning by Michael Doonan and Darren Hill who play the “Boys.” They are preparing a space for the upcoming performance of The Artiste (Jeffrey Binder), an aging, tired drag queen, who presumably had some success early in her career, though how long ago is difficult to determine. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Endgame/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough/Photo: Evan Hanover

Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

The plays of Samuel Beckett are self-contained worlds. They are shorn of history, context and anything resembling realism: life boiled down to its bone-broth essence. So when director Halena Kays gives us a production of Beckett’s “Endgame” that is itself contained in its own little traveling vaudeville stage wagon, it makes a refreshing amount of sense. And it helps that the set by Elizabeth Bracken along with the lights by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, costumes by Jessica Kuehnau Wardell and makeup by Nathan Rohrer all look fantastic. And seedy. And a little bit scary.

Kays however doesn’t fully embrace the starkness of Beckett’s vision, and it’s to the play’s benefit. Not only do all the characters speak in the playwright’s natural Irish lilt, but they wear the old-timey vaudeville heart of his style on their sleeve. They mug, they perform, they savor their moment in the (literal) spotlight. They seem of a specific place and specific time, and these glimmers of what once was make their irrevocable collapse all the more melancholic. Signs of children, an extinct species here, abound. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Redletter/The Neo-Futurists

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(l to r) Lisa Buscani, Trevor Dawkins, Bilal Dardai/Photo: Joe Mazza

Lisa Buscani, Trevor Dawkins, Bilal Dardai/Photo: Joe Mazza

RECOMMENDED

Decades ago when the Neo-Futurists were new at what they do here, I once duplicated scripts or some such documents for them in my arduous and artless role at the Kinko’s of Illinois flagship location. Some member came in to retrieve the copies when I mentioned that my own writing was very possibly the sort of work they might wish to produce. I was told with a dismissive and arrogant air “we have enough writers.” I confess there’s no connecting that offending individual with the Neo-Futurists’ current production. I’ll even damn my intro as unethical, while also excusing it as wholly appropriate. See, the current production “Redletter” is largely about journalism ethics.

And see it you should. Why? Because it’s entertaining, and ain’t that why you go to the theater? The Neo-Futurists seem to think so; all the shows I’ve seen there over the years have placed a premium on actually delivering an enjoyable experience. That’s not to say this show is slight. It tackles weighty issues of journalistic integrity and responsibility, as exacerbated by the immediacy of new media. But there’s really nothing new under The Sun, at any Times, or on this Daily Planet, and playwright Lisa Buscani knows better than to really place the blame for rampant lapses in reporting righteousness and accuracy on technological advances in the (near ubiquitous) availability of the news and the speed of its delivery. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Royale/American Theater Company

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Jerod Haynes/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jerod Haynes/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

American Theater Company’s production of Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” has as much heart as its title character Jay Jackson (Jerod Haynes). Inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, Jay has gone on to defeat every worthy African-American opponent including Fish (spiritedly played by Julian Parker), a young hopeful who is the only fighter Jay believes is worth his salt. He hires Fish as his sparring partner to prepare him for the fight that will change the course of history.

It’s a fight that only Jay believes he can win. Everyone else seems to think the idea is far-fetched, including his longtime boxing promoter Max (Philip Earl Johnson) and his sister Nina (passionately played by Mildred Langford) who comes with haunting news. It is his trainer Wynton (played with great composure by Edwin Lee Gibson) that reminds him he is alone in the ring, thus the ultimate decision is his. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Really Really/Interrobang Theatre Project

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(l to r) Ben TeBockhorst and Michael Holding/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Ben TeBockhorst and Michael Holding/Photo: Emily Schwartz

RECOMMENDED

Describing what Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Really Really” is really about is not easy. The play is a Molotov kegger of sex, class, politics and violence. It’s a finger, or maybe another ruder appendage, stuck right in your face and daring you to slap it away. Describe the play as an indictment of “enlightened” narcissism, ambition and class warfare and you leave out that its pivotal event is a rape. Now try saying “it’s a play about rape but it’s not really about rape” out loud without wanting to punch yourself in the face.

That the play refuses to play nice on this (it doesn’t play nice on anything) is going to make a lot of people really really (really) angry. And I also think those people should go and see it. That director James Yost and Interrobang Theatre Project have delivered a dynamite production certainly helps. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Other Place/Profiles Theatre

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PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow

Lia D. Mortensen/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Sharr White’s “The Other Place” begins as something like a memoir. Julianna, a successful scientist turned big-pharma pitchwoman (played with equal measures of tenderness and bile by Lia D. Mortensen), is filling us in on her life. She is successful in business, traveling from one tropical conference to another pitching a new wonder drug to doctors, but less so in her personal life. She is getting divorced from her oncologist husband Ian (Steve Silver) and tentatively reconnecting with her estranged daughter Laurel (Autumn Teague), even though Ian seems oddly suspicious that Laurel might not be who she says she is. And following an episode during one of her talks, Julianna also thinks she has brain cancer, which is kind of a bummer.

But while the show begins as memoir it does not stay that way for long. Soon enough it becomes a kind of neurological detective story, piecing together bits of truth and sifting them out from expansive roughs of fantasy. The intimate confines of Profile Theatre’s Main Stage make for a fine pressure-cooker in which director Joe Jahraus and his able cast slowly turn up the heat until everything boils over. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Forgotten Future: The Education Project/Collaboraction

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(from left) Collaboraction’s world premiere of Forgotten Future: The Education Project stars Leah Aberman, a 7th-grader at Lane Tech Academic Center, as Lauren Perry; Esmeralda (Emse) Ayvar-Perez, a sophomore at Lane Tech High School, as Carolina Rodriguez; and Tyrese Hall, a 6th-grader at Alain Locke Charter School on Chicago’s West side, as Issac Tate.

Leah Aberman, Esmeralda (Emse) Ayvar-Perez and Tyrese Hall/Photo: Anna Sodziak

RECOMMENDED

In 2012 the Chicago Teachers’ Union went on strike for a slew of reasons, including objecting to teacher evaluations based on student performance, teacher and school staff layoffs, and the risk of school closures. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, in spite of the strike, more than 2,000 Chicago Public Schools employees were handed pink slips and forty-nine CPS schools closed their doors. Then, at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, an additional 1,000 CPS teachers and staff members were let go. Collaboraction explores what these changes have meant for parents, teachers and, arguably most importantly, CPS students, in the remount of “Forgotten Future: The Education Project,” co-directed by Sarah Moeller and John Wilson.

The set, designed by Ashley Woods, mimics typical school classrooms. Chalkboards adorn the walls along with class spelling words, printed charts about test-taking tips and samples of student work. The play is performed in-the-round, which serves the show well, given the variety of scene settings—from picket lines, to school board hearings, to three particular students’ homes, highlighting their stories. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sondheim on Sondheim/Porchlight Music Theatre

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(l to r) James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

RECOMMENDED

It is hard to imagine a theatrical world devoid of Sondheim’s immense talent. Over the past fifty years he has earned eight Tony awards, in large part due to elevating the expectations of what a musical can accomplish. Sondheim is a composer/lyricist who has always thought big. It is fitting then that James Lapine’s 2010 “Sondheim on Sondheim” (which had a limited run on Broadway) strives to be more than just a big number music revue. Through the careful placement of video interviews set amongst forty musical numbers (which include alternate endings and outtakes from some of his lesser-known shows) the production sets out not only to entertain but to allow the audience a window into Sondheim’s creative process as well as the backstory of his life.

Given their experience staging classic musicals in an intimate setting, Porchlight Music Theatre is the perfect vehicle for bringing this production to Chicago. Director Nick Bowling and choreographer Emily Ariel Rogers do a superb job of patching together all the fragmented numbers into one cohesive theme. The musical numbers are arresting when they should be, but more often complement the oversized projection of Sondheim telling bits of his story (done beautifully above the stage so that he is often overlooking the production). A perfect example of this is Sondheim interrupting Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” (sung masterfully by James Earl Jones II) to explain both the barber’s motivation as well as the menace he is poised to hurl at the audience. A Sondheim lecture deserves a careful listen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Nice Indian Boy/Rasaka Theatre Company

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(l to r) Kaiser Ahmed and Riley McIlveen/Photo: Scott Dray.

(Kaiser Ahmed and Riley McIlveen/Photo: Scott Dray

RECOMMENDED

A family sitcom isn’t normally something one might consider eye-opening or horizon-expanding, yet Rasaka Theatre Company’s “A Nice Indian Boy” manages both. On the surface this play is about a young man whose fiancé is meeting his parents for the first time. The plot is complicated by the fact that the fiancé is also male, making this about the contemporary issue of gay marriage. Were that the entire picture, then this wouldn’t be anything new, but it’s the added layer of race that elevates this into a play with many things to say. Naveen (Kaiser Ahmed) is a first-generation American of Indian descent. His fiancé, Keshav (Riley McIlveen), is a Caucasian American who was adopted as a child by an Indian couple, and who therefore identifies himself as part of Indian culture.

Most of the show’s comedy comes out of the generational gap between semi-traditional Indian parents (Alka Nayyar and Kamal Hans) adapting to the challenges presented by their children having been raised in and around American culture. Old customs such as arranged marriages are found to be undesirable by their daughter (Suzan Faycurry) and their son’s sexuality and choice of a mate threaten to cause turmoil within the larger community. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Barbecue Apocalypse/The Ruckus

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BBQ

RECOMMENDED

Even under ideal circumstances, party planning acts as a pressure cooker for our neuroses and insecurities. We’ll never measure up to our passive-aggressive and maddeningly successful friends. We’ll be forced into the death march of social interaction with people we aren’t sure we even like. And something’s bound to go wrong and ruin everything. What if that something were a cataclysmic global apocalypse? That’s the concept (and title) of The Ruckus’ new production of Matt Lyle’s “Barbecue Apocalypse.”

The play’s two acts straddle either side of the titular apocalypse, which is smartly kept to the background as the play’s characters re-evaluate their expectations and achievements in the wake of total catastrophe.

The first act starts out with under-achieving Deb (Allison Hendrix) and Mike (Kevin Lambert) planning a backyard get-together for their friends: yuppie/hipster power couple and Pinterest-analogue darlings Ash (Bryan Bosque) and Lulu (Jillian Rea), Reaganite alpha douche Win (Andrew L. Saenz), and his new dancer girlfriend Glory (Christine Vrem-Ydstie). Deb and Mike have only just started to internalize the expectations of adulthood and realize their anxieties about not measuring up. Read the rest of this entry »