Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Bloodhound Law/City Lit Theater Company

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David Fink, Alex Glossman, Brian Bradford/Photo: Tom McGrath

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Playwright Kristine Thatcher has written an important play, and it has landed in the hands of exactly the right theater company for its world premiere. Commissioned and produced as the fifth and final installment of City Lit’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Project, “The Bloodhound Law” examines Illinois’ abolitionist stance leading up to that war. Beginning with the story of journalist Elijah Lovejoy, who dared to print anti-slavery editorials and was subsequently shot to death in Alton, and ending the journey with Chicago’s Common Council’s internal skirmishes over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, or The Bloodhound Law, Thatcher’s historical dramatization of this tale of human rights denied gallops all the way from downstate to Chicago’s City Hall.

City Lit regularly produces adaptations of literary works, making this type of project particular to their province, and their team’s steady hand is very much in evidence. Director Terry McCabe wisely keeps his nine actors onstage throughout, giving them the freedom to rise from their seats, don a hat or a vest, and undertake another of the multiple characters assigned to all without the shuffling of entrances and exits. Liz Cooper’s lighting design keeps the focus of the narrative distinct, and dialect coach Catherine Gillespie succeeds with a yeoman’s assignment of forty-two characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Look, we are breathing/Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

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(l to r) Brendan Meyer and Lily Mojekwu/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Brendan Meyer and Lily Mojekwu/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Just because someone’s died doesn’t make their death a martyrdom. It doesn’t mean they were a saint. Complicated or downright negative feelings that a person had for someone when they were alive—whether they were a son, a student, an awkward teenage lover—can persist even after that person is dead. In fact, they can become even more complicated, more negative. Yet the thought that maybe, just maybe, the deceased was kind of a dumb jerk is not the kind of thing one says aloud at parties. And definitely not at wakes.

In her new play “Look, we are breathing” playwright Laura Jacqmin takes the audience on a deep dive through these post-tragedy feelings of ambivalence, bitterness and an inability to mourn. The play, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble under director Megan Shuchman, begins with the death of Mike (Brendan Meyer), a high schooler who crashes his car while driving home high and drunk from a hockey party. Read the rest of this entry »

Life After Death: Polarity Ensemble Theatre Gives Author New Life in “The Afterlife Trilogy”

Profiles, Theater, World Premiere 1 Comment »
(l to r) Ellyn Nugent, Richard Engling, Sheila Willis and Sarah Eddy/Photo: Jason Epperson

Ellyn Nugent, Richard Engling, Sheila Willis and Sarah Eddy/Photo: Jason Epperson

By Mary Kroeck

The arts community lost a staggering number of incredible talents in 2014. Arguably, no death caused the world so much shock as the suicide of Robin Williams. He and his works were beloved by so many that few could reason why or how he could no longer continue to live. Yet, in his death, he shined a staggeringly bright light on a topic that has far too long been in the dark: mental illness.

Long before news of Williams’ passing broke, Richard Engling and Polarity Ensemble Theatre were preparing to take on the enormous task of honoring one of Engling’s dear friends who also struggled with mental illness. Among a slew of other titles she was a passionate writer and an inspiring teacher, always challenging herself to set goals and meet or exceed them. Her name was Fern Chertkow and she and her story are getting a new life in “The Afterlife Trilogy,” which consists of two novels—“Visions of Anna” by Engling and one of Chertkow’s posthumously published works, “She Plays in Darkness”—and a play “Anna in the Afterlife,” also written by Engling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Moraine/Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Theater

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Friends are the opposite of Matthew McConaughey’s beloved “high school girls.” You keep getting older, and they keep getting older too. You change, they change. Eventually you might still be “friends” even though the people you are now are entirely different than the people you were when you first connected. Such is life. And such is life especially in your twenties.

This experience of being a twenty-something/someone is at the heart of Ryan Patrick Dolan’s new play “Moraine.” It begins at the bedside of Gus (Joel Reitsma) who is in an induced coma after a battle with cancer. His best friend Mark (Caleb Fullen) is at his side, bearing sarcasm like a pair of brass knuckles when his ex-girlfriend Kelly (Allie Kunkler) comes to pay Mark a visit. From there, “Moraine” skips back and forth through time. We see person by person how Mark and Gus’ friend group came to be as Mark helps his friend Russell (Terence Sims) open a successful line of boutique ice cream stores. Gus is one of their first hires, followed by Gus’ improv buddy Mackenzie (Becca Slack) and finally Kelly, an aspiring actress and former punk-band drummer. The group coalesces, and eventually disintegrates under the pressures of careers, breakups and just plain growing up. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Good Book/Court Theatre

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Hollis Resnik/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hollis Resnik/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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In Court Theatre’s world premiere of “The Good Book” we follow the lives of Miriam (Hollis Resnik) and Connor (Alex Weisman) as they struggle with their personal faith. Miriam, who ironically has a biblical name, is an atheist biblical scholar and college professor. She tells a zealous Christian student who is opposed to her teachings, “We have to build separate rooms, one for the mind and one for the heart.” In Miriam’s class and life, she thinks of the Bible and faith strictly from an intellectual viewpoint. That heart stuff she left behind a long time ago, until she is faced with a tragedy and has to look inward.

Connor, on the other hand, is a fifteen-year-old boy with hopes of being a priest. His devotion to both the Bible and his faith is evident. Yet when he struggles with his identity, he must reconcile whether this particular faith is for him. Interwoven throughout these two stories are historical reenactments of what went into the creation of the Bible from ancient times until now. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Homefront/Project 891 Theatre Company

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Chris Hart and Patrick Cameron/Photo: Kat Dennis

Chris Hart and Patrick Cameron/Photo: Kat Dennis

The old maxim says, “You can’t go home again.” Which is of course not true. It’s a lying old maxim, a blanket statement that ignores an entire class of people for whom home is eminently returnable. These homes are immutable certainties, testaments to the inertia of late-twentieth-century middle-class living. Living relics of the pre-Y2K world. “You can’t go home again” clearly never anticipated aluminum siding, barcaloungers and “Frasier” reruns.

That feeling holds true for Ron Popp’s new play “Homefront,” which is part of a very long tradition of American family dramas that center around the family settee and are concluded just in time for dinner. The play feels musty, like it was recently removed from storage. And the characters seem like people I would love to be friends with, but who are a little too boring to be all that interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Genius/Profiles Theatre

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Genius production photos 002

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The title of Kate Walbert’s “Genius”—now receiving its world premiere at the Profiles Theatre—refers to the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants—the prospect of a MacArthur prize provides the turning point in the play. Walbert’s script presents strong ideas about large subjects.

First idea: Talented public men in America betray the women they love over money, other women, fame, position and influence in an instant. They do this because they’ve always done it, and nobody has thought or said much about it. The more intelligent the woman, the better it feels to wipe one’s feet on her.

Second idea: Even the smartest American woman by habit protects and nurtures her man’s over-estimation of his own powers as thinker, creator, artist, humanitarian or scholar.  Superior women ego-stroke without thinking about it because it’s what they’ve always done. Walbert implies it’s time that women who think stop acting as props for mediocre, needy male egoists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mecca Tales/Chicago Dramatists

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After a one-year production hiatus, Chicago Dramatists returns with a compelling and important world premiere penned by Rohina Malik, “The Mecca Tales.” Four American Muslim women of diverse backgrounds embark on their first pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, led by another, more experienced woman of a similar background. It’s a trying experience, both physically as the desert and huge crowds throw up obstacles to their journey, as well as spiritually, as they attempt to come to terms with their reasons for undertaking it.

Spun in a manner reminiscent of Mary Zimmerman’s masterful “The Arabian Nights,” but with stories more relevant and contemporary, Malik has managed to do something quite challenging: that is to take a religion and its customs, practiced by billions worldwide but misunderstood by millions of Americans, and convey its beauty and the deep spirituality of its followers in a subtle but powerful way to what is likely a primarily secular white Judeo-Christian audience. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: First Wives Club/Broadway In Chicago

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FWC

Opening night for pre-Broadway shows in Chicago can be fun. The excitement both real (will this be the next “The Producers” or “Kinky Boots”?) and manufactured (red carpets, Klieg lights and TV crews breathlessly interviewing the handful of celebrities and “celebrities” who show up), coupled with a house packed with producers and their enthusiastic friends not only heightens expectations but gives a sense for the personal efforts that such undertakings represent, both creative and financial. At the opening night for “First Wives Club,” the lead producers grabbed a mike at the curtain call and, after pointing out celebrity guests like onetime hit makers Holland, Dozier and Holland (who wrote music and lyrics for this show), along with former TV royalty Linda Bloodworth Thomason (who wrote the book), gave shoutouts to several of the investors in the room, in recognition of the long journey and huge investment a show like this represents. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Hammer Trinity/The House Theatre of Chicago

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L to R: Kara Davidson as Rienne, Kevin Stangler as Casper Kent, JJ Phillips as Wilke, William Dick as Hap The Golden

Kara Davidson, Kevin Stangler, JJ Phillips, William Dick/Photo: Michael Brosilow

The Iron Stag King

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If “Game of Thrones” took the Arthurian high fantasy genre and dragged it off its clean white pedestal down into the muck, then The House Theatre’s “Hammer Trinity” is the thing that seizes it by the scruff of its neck and hauls it across the seas to American soil. The nine-hour, seven-act trilogy of plays is just as indebted to the legacy of America’s founding mythos—common folk bellowing for freedom, cracked bells, western outlaws, steel-hearted robber barons and endlessly rejustified genocides—as it is to the legends of Arthur and Merlin. It is also nothing short of stunning.

Written by Chris Mathews and Nathan Allen (who also directs), “The Hammer Trinity” tells of a land called New Plymouth—a place ruled by narratives. Instead of wizards there are storytellers, ancient beings who conjure tales about who is good and bad, right and wrong, who should rule and who should be ruled.

“The Iron Stag King,” the first play in the trilogy, opens with the tale of young Casper Kent (Kevin Stangler), a simple orphan who is (of course!) anything but. He learns from storyteller Hap The Golden (William Dick) that he must quest to find the magical Hammer of his ancestors and unite a splintered land. Hot on his heels are the forces of the Crownless, led by the vicious fop Henley Hawthorne (Joey Steakley) hellbent on snuffing out Casper’s royal line for good. Read the rest of this entry »

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