Photo: Emily Schwartz
For anyone who’s ever pined for a movie star from a past era or maybe got a little too turned on by famous figures in history class, “The Dead Prince—A New Muzical” just might be the show for your deceased-person desires. The rest of you however probably won’t find the Strange Tree Group’s new tuner quite as zany as that substitution ‘z’ suggests.
The musical begins with a troupe of forest-dwelling storytellers (led by Elizabeth Bagby) tumbling out of their gypsy caravan to proclaim just how eager they are to deliver the evening’s fairy tale. They then proceed to sing about getting ready to tell the story instead of, you know, just actually starting to tell the damn thing. Once the group finally gets that initial song out of their system, the audience is introduced to Sara (Ann Sonneville), a past-her-prime princess desperate to find the right man to help rule her kingdom. Joined by her doting, bushy-haired, mandolin-totting minstrel (Zachary Sigelko), Sara sets out on a last ditch effort to land herself a prince by seeking the help of a magic mirror named Maldorf (Michael Thomas Downey), who—bad news for Sara here—reveals that she can never be with her true love because the dude is already dead. At one time a powerful wizard who cheated death by concealing himself in the mirror, Maldorf strikes a deal with Sara: if he leads her to the deceased prince’s tomb, she’ll crack the mirror and set him free. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Anne Petersen
Here’s the basic plot: not long after word of their breakup hits the interwebs, ex-mall cop (and current lonely loser) Bill (Rob Grabowski) kidnaps celebrity (ex)couple Kate Thomas (Mary Williamson) and Sam Lewis (Nick Delehanty), drugging them and dragging them to his shitty apartment for sketchy (and potentially dangerous) couples counseling with his Sam-and-Kate-obsessed teenaged friend Becky (Stephanie Shum).
Initially, it sounds like a concept that could wear thin rather quickly, but in playwright Joel Kim Booster’s “Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up,” what starts out as a seemingly lightweight comedy centered around celebrity worship and a tween-book-series-turned-movie-franchise (the wonderfully realized “Ghost Forest”) ever-so-slowly creeps its way into a much darker exploration of obsession, self-loathing and, ultimately, redemption (spoiler alert—there’s someone in the program with the title Violence Designer). And yet, in every disturbing corner that this production turns, its solid comedic core follows carefully throughout. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Bob Fisher
The Chicago Mammal’s “All Girl Frankenstein” is more akin to sculpture, film, dance, performance art or poetry than strictly narrative-based theater. But, as a Rorschach test of an idea filtered through the highly stylized sets, costumes and sound design of the Mammals’ vigorously creative ensemble, “AGF” is a strangely affecting piece of art. And, though the experience is in fact highly theatrical, AGF owes a great debt to film and the notions of manipulating time through editing as well as the stylized and strategic use of sound design.
In fact, “AGF” is not so much an adaption of “Frankenstein” as it is an evisceration, dissection and celebration of particular themes: sex, death, creation, unrequited love, filial and family duty, and yes, prurience, extracted from the original text and then grafted onto other theatrical forms such as commedia dell’arte, dance, film and perhaps even Butoh to create a loose and highly original riff on the seminal Victorian text. Such creative bricolage is a hallmark of what could be considered postmodern. But The Mammals seem far less concerned with classification and more interested in exploring—and even indulging (by their own admission)—what they enjoy, as opposed to creating anything immediately artistically classifiable.
And I’m not quite sure I could classify this if I tried. But I do know that I liked it. Read the rest of this entry »
Katherine Keberlein, Mike Nussbaum, Eric Slater, Guy Massey and Catherine Combs/Photo: Liz Lauren
I kept thinking about the story of my parents’ oft-discussed first meeting—at a dance hall in Fargo, North Dakota sometime at the dawn of the JFK era—as I watched one of the best plays of the year, Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall,” in its world premiere at the Goodman earlier this week. And how, if not for a thousand factors of chance, that meeting had not occurred, or had not gone well, and my world, the world of my wife and children, of my brothers and their families—the life that is everything to me and nothing of consequence to most others—does not exist.
An existential scream baked inside a birthday cake, “Smokefall” forces contemplation of the nature of domestic life, and the meaning of life, through a production that commences with a surreal-tinted realism (telegraphed before the curtain by Kevin Depinet’s slightly off-kilter wonder of a set) and progresses through a slightly too-long shtick-driven duo of fraternal twins inside the womb with a predilection for singing Sondheim and into a second act where time, space and generations overlap and blend together. Read the rest of this entry »
When I reviewed “500 Clown and the Elephant Deal” four years ago, I remember wishing I knew more about Madam Barker, the sexy, charming “vocalist of the apocalypse” the show centered on. This show answers my questions, but knowledge costs mystery. That character was someone you wanted to know better but couldn’t; that was part of the attraction. Maybe some questions are better left unanswered.
In this show, we learn that Madam Barker (Molly Brennan) is the product of an immaculate conception, served as a captain on a whaling ship, and did a stretch of time in Chicago as a bootlegger during Prohibition. She announces that this performance will be her last and refuses to speak of it again to her supporting ensemble. Somewhere in there, she divulges her fear of the real world and touches on the benefits of fantasy versus the slow death of reality. The character has transformed from a sly, blowsy question mark to a peppy yet neurotic force of nature. A Tanqueray-sodden force of nature, but a force of nature nonetheless. I miss Madam Version One; she’s the woman who’d get you drunk on crappy red wine and then sleep with you after a nasty breakup. Read the rest of this entry »
(left to right) Patrick Gannon, Alanda Coon and Patrick Rybarczyk/Photo: Michael Brosilow
First off, this play (in its world premiere production here) is extremely timely: a story about “coming out” that asks if an entire life is a lie if one can’t embrace his or her sexuality or overcome the stereotypes. I wanted to like this play. The theme is important. The idea is relevant. The cast is seasoned. And Pride Films and Plays, along with writer Martin Casella and director David Zak, have been doing good work for a long while. That being said, the four-piece ensemble is fairly wooden, the show lacks tension and offers minimal conflict.
The subjects of death, leukemia, repressed sexuality, a blind father, overdose, and even Mormons should supply adequate fuel but rarely is any heat created between Jinx (Patrick Gannon) and Griff (Patrick Rybarczyk), lifelong friends who go to England for a vacation to reconnect and answer questions about their past that remain a mystery, particularly to Griff. There is a present, awkwardly forced, uncomfortable touching between the main characters—manly backslapping, brief shoulder rubs and the like. While the characters are supposed to be awkward during physical contact, it feels forced and overstated, blurring the lines when passion or grief are supposed to be at the forefront. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Danny Nicholas
If you don’t already know the storied history of Curtis Mayfield—known to some as “the black Bob Dylan” (or was Dylan the white Curtis Mayfield?)—you will by the end of this thoroughly historical production, currently running at Black Ensemble Theater. Written, produced and co-directed by Jackie Taylor (with Daryl D. Brooks) this biographical show features an impressive amount of Mayfield’s music (dazzlingly performed by an energetic cast and backed by a hard-working, talented onstage band) mixed in with a good deal of stilted, fact-laden dialogue. And therein lies the drawback to this otherwise captivating musical production.
Making excellent use of Mayfield’s music (both his own songs and songs he wrote for other performers) Taylor has written the show as a reflection piece, with an older, paralyzed Mayfield—mesmerizingly portrayed by Reginald E. Torian, Sr., the lead singer for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Impressions since 1972 (when he replaced Mayfield)—looking back on his life and discussing his past successes and (ever so briefly) failures. And though Torian’s voice and emphatic acting captures and maintains audience interest (all the more impressive for his being a musician and not an actor) the flashback style effectively kills many of the more dramatic moments in Mayfield’s life. Read the rest of this entry »
Rae Gray and Tim Chiou/Photo: Liz Lauren
Everything about this world-premiere adaptation of French author Marguerite Duras’ novel of the same name is surreal. Scenes fade in and out with dreamlike transitions and overlap. Daniel Ostling’s deceptively simple, blankly carpeted set pops tables and chairs up through the floor, silently rotates entire scenes around and features a large door piece that seems to magically slide itself across the stage when needed. The frequently dim but often colorful lighting design (also by Ostling) creates a smoky effect over the stage, as if you can just barely make out what’s happening. In several scenes, Betti Xiang (backlit in a corner of the stage) plays haunting melodies on an erhu (sometimes called the “Chinese violin”).
But the story itself—ostensibly autobiographical, though we’re told from the beginning by M (an understated and rather mysterious Deanna Dunagan) that our narrator may not be completely reliable—is the most surreal of all. The story of a fifteen-year-old girl (a strident Rae Gray, referred to only as “The Child”) and her affair with a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese playboy (the effortlessly urbane Tim Chiou, referred to only as “The Lover”) in early 1930s Indochina, this adaptation by Heidi Stillman (who also directs) does little to sugarcoat the nature of the couple’s relationship. She at first claims to be seventeen, then sixteen-and-a-half, but The Lover believes neither. Read the rest of this entry »
Jaclyn Hennell as Ann Landers
“How do we tell that story and, like, tell the truth?” one hip young ensemble member asks another in the unwieldy (and unwieldily titled) “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women.” Gathered in “a rehearsal room at The Hull House Theatre”—actually American Theater Company, where Kerith Parashak’s mazelike set is appropriately packed with Joshua Hurley’s seemingly random and decaying collection of props—they’re rehearsing the show we’re about to see.
It’s a show about history and Chicago and women. But it’s not going to be THAT kind of show, these actors assure each other as they playfully prepare. Because they wouldn’t want to put on THAT kind of show. They just want to cut the bullshit, tell the truth and not be all “…Historical. Like ‘capital H’ Historical.”
Well, it’s an admirable attempt. The thing is, a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware, meta after-school special is still an after-school special. And no matter how hard this energetic cast works to push back against presenting a rather dry pedagogical series of historical pieces linked together via entertaining (though mostly inane) backstage banter, that’s what this world-premiere production (featuring plays by nine Chicago playwrights) currently is. Read the rest of this entry »
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but in Babes with Blades Theatre Company’s premiere of Eric Simon’s “Bo Thomas and the Case of the Sky Pirates,” the two tools are nearly equally matched.
This word- and action-packed production pays homage to the 1940s detective genre, while gleefully pillaging all the significant noir tropes: hats, trench coats, cigarettes, the mysterious femme fatale, the fading detective agency, the scrappy and irrepressible heroine and the increasingly perplexing (and in this case, slightly fantastical) mystery. But in “Bo Thomas” the 1940′s gender roles are completely reversed. Read the rest of this entry »