Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Keys of the Kingdom/Stage Left

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Kate Black-Spence and Brian Plocharcyzk/Photo: Johnny Knight

Kate Black-Spence and Brian Plocharczyk/Photo: Johnny Knight

When a new play is tackling a current social issue, for instance the tensions between atheists, gays and right-wing mega-churches, there is always a difficult line to walk between arguing and conflict. Watching two characters work against one another because they have contradicting needs and desires is conflict. Watching two characters debate each other’s contradicting points of view is arguing. The former is the very essence of drama, the latter is ancillary. One is “Hamlet,” the other is CNN’s “Crossfire.”

Playwright Penny Penniston’s “Keys of the Kingdom,” currently receiving its world premiere from Stage Left Theatre, doesn’t quite walk the line closely enough. Or really, it spends its first half firmly on the arguing side of the line before hoisting itself over onto the conflict side in its second. And once it’s over the line, it stays there: Act Two is compelling, empathetic and goosebumpling. However, as Act Two is only about half as long as Act One, the journey to get there is rather arduous. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Father Ruffian/City Lit Theater

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Nick Lake/Photo: Cole Simon

Nick Lake/Photo: Cole Simon

What annoyed me most about City Lit’s “Father Ruffian” is that it is something very old doing all it can to convince you that it is something new. By condensing Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” Parts One and Two, adding in a dollop of “Holinshed’s Chronicles,” capping it off with a garnish of “Henry V,” throwing in some iPhones and wrapping the whole thing under a new title, adapter and director Paul Edwards attempts an illusion of newness. Only what he’s done here is not new at all. It is something utterly familiar and woefully disappointing: bad Shakespeare.

For the most part, the show is nothing more than a condensed “Henry IV.” The climactic battle with Hotspur happens midway through Act Two and then we are given a greatest-hits version of Part Two and Falstaff’s death in “Henry V,” all within about thirty to forty-five minutes. It is a production of “Henry IV” that manages to throw in modern touches—iPhones, laptops, the Salvation Army, satellite maps—without ever having any modern observations to go with them. The show has one foot in the past, one in the present, and neither on solid ground. Read the rest of this entry »

Living Funeral at the Hummingbird Hotel: Steppenwolf Playwright Lisa D’Amour on Setting Her “Airline Highway” in Her New Orleans Hometown

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(from top, then left to right) Scott Jaeck, Brenann Stacker, Caroline Neff, Terry Hamilton, Kate Buddeke and Carolyn Braver/Photo: Joel Moorman

(from top, then left to right) Scott Jaeck, Brenann Stacker, Caroline Neff, Terry Hamilton, Kate Buddeke and Carolyn Braver/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

Lisa D’Amour is a playwright and an interdisciplinary artist. “It’s just a little bizarre that it’s kind of two different fields,” she notes when we discuss the distinction between traditional theater and interdisciplinary arts. “It’s sort of astounding how little the leaders in these fields talk to each other.” An Obie winner for her play “Detroit” as well as for work as part of the collaborative performance duo PearlDamour, she’s been working closely with Steppenwolf on the world premiere of her new play “Airline Highway.”

I asked D’Amour if developing a play set in her hometown of New Orleans with the famed Chicago theater, who commissioned the piece, affected the content of the show. “Only in that it helps to make the content clearer. It’s especially good to be developing it with a lot of people who don’t know a whole lot about New Orleans. There are certain sort of inside jokes and references that are very New Orleans specific and many remained in the play, but when there’s too many then an audience that doesn’t know New Orleans just feels lost. It was really a great way to kind of shape how we make this accessible to a Steppenwolf audience without dulling the play down.”

The play is set in the parking lot of the fading Hummingbird Hotel on the titular roadway, where a group of the establishment’s current and former residents gather to celebrate the life of dying octogenarian Miss Ruby, Bourbon Street burlesque legend and matriarch to many. This celebration takes the form of a living funeral. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale/Broadway In Chicago

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Dee 1


What happens when four guys from failed bands join together, make a deal with the devil and pledge their souls to Satan in order to find fame and fortune? When it takes place in a show entitled “Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” it’s safe to guess that the result will be something a little… twisted, perhaps. Directed by Adam John Hunter, who also staged the national tours of “Sweeney Todd” and “Rock of Ages,” this world premiere is a family-friendly Christmas rockfest.

Hunter steering this production makes sense considering that the content of this show is so reminiscent of the latter (which also features songs by Twisted Sister) that, in fact, one could almost call this a “Rock of Ages” holiday sequel. While both shows feature a narrator, in “Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” none other than Dee Snider himself takes on the role of spot-lit storyteller. While his name may be in the title, Snider’s monologues can get a bit lengthy, and often feel unnecessary, as the cast does an excellent job of delivering the funny and clever dialogue of the book. However, what ultimately sets the two shows apart is also the thing that ties them together: the music. “Rock of Ages” has more than twenty songs in its performance. Here there are thirteen, most of which are Twisted Sister songs or mash-ups of the hair-metal-band’s rock anthems with well-known Christmas songs. (Twisted Sister released a Christmas album, aptly titled “A Twisted Christmas” in 2006, making the originality of the mash-ups slightly less impressive.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Humans/American Theater Company

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Hannah Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O'Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hanna Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O’Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow


The specter of loss hangs like a literal specter, a ghost, over Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” currently receiving its world premiere at American Theater Company. The loss of money, of security, of mothers and daughters and those we hold closest to us, of their respect and their love. Karam conjures up these fears and then sends them skittering off into dusty crevices where they become suspicious knocking sounds and burnt out light bulbs and darkened rooms and the ominous whirring of unseen machinery. 9/11 is present too, the latest loss of innocence for the nation itself. The inconceivable terror of a world that comes crashing down in fire, rubble and ash touches the play’s characters more closely than is first apparent. Karam has drawn up a world much like our own, where everything we know can be gone in a second.

The play itself concerns a single family, the Blakes. The parents, Eric (Keith Kupferer) and Deirdre (Hanna Dworkin), are blue-collar Catholic folk from Scranton, the kind that have purchased land for a lake house but have done so as a two-income household and with a fair amount of belt-tightening. They have come down to the wilds of Chinatown in New York City to spend Thanksgiving in the new apartment of their youngest daughter Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and her much older boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker). Their other daughter, Aimee (Sadieh Rifai), is also there. She’s a lawyer from Philly with a failing intestinal tract and a recent separation from her longtime girlfriend. And Eric’s mother, who everyone calls Momo (Jean Moran), is also physically present, although her mind has long been lost to the ravages of dementia. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Guide to Being Single/Underscore Theatre Company

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Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras

Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras


Wouldn’t it be great if there were a book that provided all the dos and don’ts to loving the single life? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a book about dating that everyone could read so there would be no harm to anyone’s emotions because everyone knows the rules and plays by them? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Maybe. Unless, those darn things called “feelings” got in the way. “The Guide to Being Single,” a new musical by Kaitlin Gilgenbach (book) and Alexi Kovin (music and lyrics), aims to ask and answer those exact questions.

The show is set in Wrigleyville, one of Chicago’s most bar-lined neighborhoods. Six friends Jackie (Sarah Danielle Hoch), Heather (Miki Byrne), Zack (Jonas Davidow), Derek (Jomar Ferreras), Liza (Kelsey Burd) and Stacy (Juanita Andersen) have all discovered a new book promising that, by following the simple rules given, singles can enjoy “screwing without getting screwed.” Rounding out the cast is Chad Michael Innis who plays a bartender, cab driver and bar goer, among other roles. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Women At War/Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

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C. Williams, B.A. Green, K.V. McNeil, R. Altay, D. Davis, P. Ramirez, M. Cross

In a set of extremely brief vignettes, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble relates the experiences of American women in the armed forces through Megan Carney’s new play “Women At War.”  Based on the real experiences of women who have gone overseas and fought on behalf of our country, the play takes a rapid-fire and disjointed look at what it is to be a female soldier or sailor during the Iraq war era.

The play begins with a scene between a woman (played by Mary Cross) about to head out on her second deployment and her mother-in-law (Susan Gaspar) who is trying to understand the choices that her son’s wife is making (i.e. leaving her child behind to go to war). Gaspar’s character is an effective surrogate for those of us in the audience. We seek understanding.

As we follow a group of women on their military journey from boot camp to the Iraqi theatre to the post-military life and return back home, we witness a number of situations that each could be expanded into a play of its own.  Due to this broad overview, the show gives no part of the experience of being a woman in the military more than a cursory treatment. Read the rest of this entry »

I Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll All Christmas: Dee Snider’s Spirited Musical Tale

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Dee Snider

by Raymond Rehayem

Some folks wanna rock. Some folks wanna white Christmas. Dee Snider wants to spread rocking yuletide cheer.

“Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale” debuts this season here in Chicago, where we rock year ‘round and where last winter resembled Santa’s polar headquarters. Best known as the singer and leader of the eighties heavy-metal hit-makers Twisted Sister, Snider has built a diverse resumé, spanning music, radio, television, film and now, stage. Speaking to the amiable Snider, it’s clear he brings a great enthusiasm to all these disciplines, while never taking for granted his success in any field.

“When I went to write my autobiography, they didn’t want me to write it. They were like, ‘Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can write.’ I said let me do a few chapters, and they loved it, so they let me write my own book. I’m blessed to have all those talents.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Native Son/Court and American Blues Theater

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Jerod Haynes and Eric Lynch/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jerod Haynes and Eric Lynch/Photo: Michael Brosilow


In a “Poem About My Rights” June Jordan pens these words, “Wrong is not my name/ My name is my own my own my own/and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this/ but I can tell you that from now on my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life.”  Jordan’s words, though written long after Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son,” are the unofficial biography for his protagonist’s life. For so long Wright’s protagonist has been told that he is wrong, akin to an abominable black rat not worthy of life. Yet like in Jordan’s poem, when his spiritual awakening manifests, his fear dissipates and he realizes he has the power to name himself. It’s beautiful indeed, yet the road is long and rocky.

The play “Native Son,” adapted by Nambi E. Kelley, opens up with Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) and the highly inebriated daughter of his new boss Mary (Nora Fiffer).  Unable to stand, Bigger helps Mary to her room. While helping her, Mary begins to flirt with Bigger, who is initially reluctant to respond because she is white and he is black. Still, he eventually gives in to his desires, but their moment is interrupted by Mary’s blind mother Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman). Bigger’s attempt to quiet Mary by placing a pillow over her mouth ultimately leads to her death.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Marvelous Marvelettes/Black Ensemble Theater

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When Mary Wilson of the Supremes came through town late last fall, she recalled that the Supremes had no less than seven flops before catching on while another Detroit all-female group, the Marvelettes, had five consecutive hits, including Motown’s first-ever No. 1 hit.

This is history seemingly long-forgotten nearly fifty years later, that there was a time when Motown Records’ founder and president Berry Gordy was actually attempting to model the Supremes on the success of the Marvelettes. So much so, in fact, that he brought the Supremes to the same songwriting team that had written hits for the Marvelettes before the Supremes began charting.

While the Marvelettes have been largely relegated to an early footnote and a chorus of that first hit, “Please Mr. Postman” in Gordy’s own vacuous and self-serving “Motown the Musical,” leave it to Black Ensemble Theater to out-Motown Gordy himself by offering a three-dimensional portrait of Gordy and the inner workings of Motown in its world-premiere production “The Marvelous Marvelettes” by Reginald Williams and directed by Rueben D. Echoles.   Read the rest of this entry »