Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

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Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff, Deirdre O’Connell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Late in the second act of playwright Mona Mansour’s marvelous “The Way West,” a pizza-delivery guy gets into a tussle over declined credit cards with the play’s protagonists and exclaims, “At least I’m solvent!” It’s one of those wonderfully terrible moments in the theater, when the truth slices like a lawnmower gone amok, taking out not only the subjects of the insult as well as its deliverer, who’s just admitted that he’s thirty-three years old and has lost his “real” job, but also us, the audience, as we realize how trivial our American life has become, where we measure our self-worth and sense of accomplishment on whether we pay our credit card bills on time, on whether we’re solvent.

Few things create more stress in marriages, in families, in life than money and the lack thereof, yet our theater so rarely addresses commonplace financial matters, preferring instead to kick around the more easily dramatic, if far less universal, arcs of corruption, fraud and theft. This simultaneous freshness and familiarity of subject make this world-premiere production especially compelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Haunting of Hill House/City Lit Theater

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HillHouse-press-photo-3-378x400

Sheila Willis and Edward Kuffert/Photo: Austin Oie

The early spring evening turned ominously autumnal as I approached the holy stone building that houses City Lit Theater. Unfortunately nothing nearly as spooky transpired inside during City Lit’s world-premiere adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House.” City Lit specializes, as their name implies, in bringing literary works to the stage. Here they adapt an acclaimed novel by Shirley Jackson, best remembered for her unnerving short story “The Lottery.” The tale of Hill House centers on an investigation of its purported supernatural characteristics spearheaded by one Dr. Montague (an appropriately haughty Edward Kuffert) and the effect his exploratory stay in the old mansion has on the doctor and the handful of guests he has invited to join him.

The book is widely praised as an exemplar of psychological terror and was turned into a well-regarded film within a few years of its 1959 release. Owing to its literary origins, this Hill House is a wordy affair. The 1963 movie version has the cinematic bag of tricks at its disposal to assist in the transition to the big screen. This stage adaptation instead embraces the verbosity as a strength, which—despite the convincing set design, heavy reliance on flashy lighting and thunderous sound effects and amenable turns from a capable cast—yields an evening not so different from a staged reading. Indeed, much of the production’s nearly two-and-a-half hours is given over to a pair of narrators. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sandalwood/Tympanic Theatre Company and the side project

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Sandalwood_001_WEBCreators want the best for the things they make; every song composed should win a Grammy, every book can be the great American novel. Given that artists always dream big, it’s a bitter disappointment when an impulse evolves into something they hadn’t planned on. Just ask a screenwriter.

A carpenter (a suitably laconic Sean Thomas) tracks down his creation (livewire Anthony Stamilio) through the rough-n-tumble West. After drinkin’, lovin’ and killin’, the carpenter’s puppet has become human, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. Pinocchio’s a real boy, and that ain’t good.

Thomas’ sadness captures the horror his work wracks up and Stamilio’s goofy energy belies the devastation his character leaves behind. A revulsion-tinged monologue from Jillian Rea creepily communicates what it’s like to be the object of this creature’s affections. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chapatti/Northlight Theatre

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John Mahoney and Penny Slusher/Photo: Michael Brosilow

John Mahoney and Penny Slusher/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Chapatti, an unleavened flatbread, is a staple of South Asian cuisine. Chapatti is also the name bestowed upon the beloved dog of Dan (John Mahoney), the male half of the two-hander in playwright Christian O’Reilly’s play of the same name. Developed through Northlight’s Interplay, a program designed to encourage new authors, this world premiere is co-produced by Galway Arts Festival in Ireland, where three other premieres cultivated through Interplay have travelled to great acclaim. Dan’s female anti-muse, Betty (Penny Slusher), has perhaps nineteen cats, although the counting is sketchy as there is a new litter of kittens on hand, and Betty mentions that there are always more on the way. What is the likely result of an opinionated dog and a houseful of strong-minded cats being tossed together, however inadvertently, by their owners? The word “mayhem” springs to mind.

Certainly the meeting of the unlikely pair appears less than fortuitous; what could be more instantly riotous than an impromptu party for an unleashed pup and a crate of escaping kittens held on the veterinarian’s front stoop? Dan has lost his love, and Betty has all but given up on Cupid. Dan growls and grumbles, and Betty demurs and giggles, both hiding their loneliness, focusing on the care of their animal friends. Can they pull the bricked-up facades down and start anew, even at a less-than tender age? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: American Myth/American Blues Theater

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American-Myth3-Cheryl-Graeff-Mick-Weber-and-Terry-Hamilton-Photo-by-Johnny-Knight-1024x682RECOMMENDED

Napoleon once said, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” We can never really know what the “truth” is where history’s concerned; maybe it’s just a fanciful strip of terrain over which passionate battles are fought. The discipline is full of practitioners who fudge historic record for their own aggrandizement. But when historians pad their own biographies, does that damage their credibility? Given the shifting and shifty nature of history, should we care if individuals play fast and loose with their personal truth?

History professor Douglas Graham (an affable, passionate Mick Weber) is coming into his own; he receives awards and the best academic programs court him. He and his devoted wife Lanie (Cheryl Graeff) garner favorable media coverage from their former academic protégée Peter (Jordan Brodess). Subsequently, Peter discovers Douglas’ personal story doesn’t match up with history. How, he rationalizes, can we trust a historian who takes liberties with his own truth? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Darlin’/Step Up Productions

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Darlin1There is great truth in the notion that the insane do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Of the several themes in actor-cum-playwright Joshua Rollins’ play “Darlin’,” the parental fear of passing along to one’s progeny one’s suspected immutable defects appears in strong relief against a backdrop of familial neglect and its rancid first cousin, abuse. Some of the characters will call “halt” to the cycle, for better or for worse, while others will stay frozen in their personal winters. Who appears “crazier” to those of us who may sympathize, but aren’t equipped to empathize: those throwing their whole selves against the walls of their status quo, or those who sigh and sob, and stay put? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: This is Not a Cure for Cancer/Collaboraction

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Anthony Moseley/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Anthony Moseley/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Heartfelt and well-intentioned though it certainly seems, “This is Not a Cure for Cancer” is not an engaging or artful piece of theater. That is not to say it is without craft nor lacking in artifice; throughout the performance, video projections, props and costume changes shift the setting and the emotional tone—in a direct, unsubtle but efficient manner. The more-than-capable large supporting cast is more than game in ensemble moments as brain cells and cancer cells and even enjoyable in individual turns as health care practitioners and game-show hosts. The disparate scenes provide cursory introductions to facets of the disease and controversies over varying treatment options. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: hamlet is dead. no gravity/Red Tape Theatre

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Sarah Grant and Amanda Drinkall

Sarah Grant and Amanda Drinkall/Photo: Austin D. Oie

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Written by Austrian playwright Ewald Palmetshofer (and translated beautifully by Neil Blackadder for this English-language world premiere) “hamlet is dead.  no gravity” is a dark, postmodern look at the meaning of life. Staged in a stripped-down church space with set design consisting of little more than some scaffolding, spotlights and four chairs, six characters alternate telling the audience their role in a past event.  Even this basic point is not readily understood as the disjointed narratives are slow to build a coherent story around a pair of siblings bumping into old friends at a funeral (all the while suffering the effects of a poorly cooked roast eaten at their ninety-five-year-old grandmother’s birthday party).  These are, as their mother points out, strange times where “the old have birthdays and the children are buried.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Luna Gale/Goodman Theatre

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Mary Beth Fisher and Erik Hellman/Photo by Liz Lauren

Mary Beth Fisher and Erik Hellman/Photo: Liz Lauren

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The best twists in a story are not those that reveal some new and unexpected turn of events but those that reveal something new and unexpected about a character. Something that makes you (or at least the really loud audience member sitting directly behind you) gasp sharply and whisper “Ohhhh noooo” or, alternatively, “Ohhhh yessss” at its revelation. Playwright Rebecca Gilman’s latest work, now appearing at the Goodman Theatre in a world-premiere production directed by Robert Falls, has many such moments. And in the tightly crafted world that Gilman has created and that Falls has brought to life, each realization hits the mark.

The titular Luna Gale is an infant, brought to an Iowa emergency room by her meth-using teenage parents Karlie and Peter (Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar) and promptly put into the custody of Karlie’s mother Cindy (Jordan Baker) by veteran social worker Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher). But when the overly religious Cindy pushes for full adoption with the help of her pastor (Richard Thieriot), Caroline begins to wonder if living with her grandmother is really that much better for Luna in the long run. Especially if Luna’s troubled parents can turn their lives around for the sake of their child. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Bouffonery: Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival Balances Art and Entertainment

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Muualla1_Chiara_ContrinoBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

The release reads, “First of its kind in the U.S., the 2014 Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival brings shows from around the world together January 6th through 12th.”

If, like me, you are not the type to enjoy clowns and dancing elephants, make sure you read further; this is not your average big-top, “shiny shoe” circus. This is the circus peculiar to much of Europe, Quebec and a slow trickle in the United States, a circus unlike that of Vegas’ “Cirque du Soleil”—it is innovative, small, plucky and growing steam.

Curated by Matt Roben and Shayna Swanson, two mightily seasoned performers in their own circus-y rights, the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival is the nation’s first contemporary circus festival. The focus of contemporary circus is to create artistically insightful and emotionally affecting work, such as one-man contortionist acts or late-night cabaret mime. This circus has existed in Chicago for years, but never has such a streamlined attempt been made to make the City of Big Shoulders THE city for circus; as Roben puts it, the festival is an attempt to make Chicago “the epicenter of circus for the United States.” Read the rest of this entry »