Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Moby Dick/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

RECOMMENDED

“Moby Dick” is the leviathan of American literature, diving deeper than any other work into the mysteries of human nature and destiny. Shakespearean in scope, biblical in flavor, Herman Melville’s nineteenth-century novel most memorably gave us the one-legged, lightning-scarred figure of Captain Ahab, whose mad quest for the white whale that “dismasted” him turns the voyage of the Pequod into a Jim Jones-style death cult.

Director-adapter David Catlin, fresh from his spectacular “Lookingglass Alice,” shows he is as comfortable with the sublime as the whimsical, crafting a gripping version of the novel that captures both its epic scale and sharp characterizations. In association with The Actors Gymnasium, Catlin and company have created a kinetic, circus-like theater space that engulfs the audience and makes Melville’s watery world come alive. Set, lighting and sound designers Courtney O’Neill, William C. Kirkham and Rick Sims deserve an ovation for their depiction of the sea’s moods, from tropical languor to typhoons that mirror Ahab’s inner turmoil. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan/Broadway In Chicago

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OnYourFeet

Photo: Matthew Murphy

RECOMMENDED

Seven Grammys. Over 100 million albums sold worldwide. A true-life story that so many can relate to in its triumph and tragedy. That’s the life of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and their incredible rise to fame, brilliantly captured in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” now in its pre-Broadway world premiere here in Chicago.

From stunning costumes (designed by Emilio Sosa—who also did the costumes for “Motown: The Musical”), gorgeous sets, a phenomenal cast, a solid book and, of course, some really great music, this show is absolutely worthy of a Broadway stage.

The show begins as a show like this should—making the audience feel like they are at a concert. A full band is live on stage, colorful lights fill the room and, if you’re sitting close to the stage, you feel the beat of the drums in your chest as the hit “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” begins to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Body + Blood/The Gift Theatre

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L-R: Stephen Spencer, Nicholas Harazin, Lynda Newton, Cyd Blakewell and Gabriel Franken/Photo: Claire Demos

Stephen Spencer, Nicholas Harazin, Lynda Newton, Cyd Blakewell and Gabriel Franken/Photo: Claire Demos

RECOMMENDED

Priests are common characters in American storytelling but they are rarely ever protagonists. They often have a part to play, it’s just never in their own story. So it is refreshingly bracing when William Nedved’s “Body + Blood” gives audiences something rarely seen on the modern stage (or screen or Kindle, for that matter): a story about a man aspiring to become a priest that a) takes his faith in God seriously, b) has nothing to do with child abuse and c) allows this man to be a complete and total screw-up.

Directed by Marti Lyons in a world-premiere production at The Gift Theatre, “Body + Blood” begins with the first of many poor, or at least poorly timed, decisions made by Dan (Nicholas Harazin) in pursuit of priesthood. On a warm summer evening on the porch of the Chicago apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Leah (Cyd Blakewell), Dan informs her that he plans on joining the priesthood. This, of course, also means that the two of them are done. Since she was expecting a marriage proposal, Leah doesn’t take the news all that well. And when Dan’s big sister Monica (Lynda Newton) arrives with her lovable lug of a husband Mick (Stephen Spencer) she laughs him right out of the building. Too her, this is simply another example of Dan running away from commitment. Even Dan’s spiritual advisor Father Alex (Gabriel Franken) starts to have some serious questions as to what is really motivating this decision. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth/Underscore Theatre Company

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Borderlands_Press_8

Aaron Davidson, Sarah Beth Tanner, Mike Mazzocca, Jon Patrick Penick, Ian Knox/Photo: Zane Rarek

I have to hand it to Underscore Theatre Company; their world-premiere production of “Borderlands:  Three Chords and the Truth” is about as ambitious as it is long. And at more than two hours in length, that is quite a lot of ambition. Picture the characters of “Rent” reunited in a dive bar twenty years later, maybe a little more realistic in what they can accomplish, but still plugging away. And instead of hanging out in Manhattan, they are in Nashville, and their rock opera sensibilities have been traded in for a ukulele, a violin and a few other stringed instruments. If this sounds intriguing, it is, but produced as a full-length musical it lacks enough memorable music and enough character development to truly make it work. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Motel 666/Wildclaw Theatre

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Photo six, Natalie DiCristofano, Dave Belden, Tony St.Clair/KBH Media

Natalie DiCristofano, Dave Belden, Tony St.Clair/Photo: KBH Media

RECOMMENDED

A playwright friend and I were recently discussing the problems we had with shows that were collections of short plays. While these shows are often promising in theory they usually suffer in either consistency, quality or both. And at a deeper level, they often lack a unifying artistic vision that makes for a satisfying evening. The parts remain just parts, never cohering into a whole.

By chance, I took this friend to see Wildclaw Theatre’s “Motel 666,” which just so happens to be a short horror anthology; and we were both pleased as (probably poisoned) punch to find that the failings listed above were nowhere to be found. Consisting of seven plays by different playwrights, “Motel 666” nonetheless shares a common cast and a single director, Scott Cummins. The plays, which vary wildly in tone and aesthetic, are also united by a common location, a dingy room in the titular establishment, as well as by the continued presence of the motel’s off-putting and possibly otherworldly proprietors, played by Natalie DiCristofano and Tony St. Clair. There is indeed a whole here, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Pied Piper/The Forks & Hope Ensemble

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Photos by Tom McGrath (L to R) Andrew Bailes, Christian Stokes, Julia Meese, Amber Robinson, Casey Pilkenton and Nikki R. Veit

Andrew Bailes, Christian Stokes, Julia Meese, Amber Robinson, Casey Pilkenton and Nikki R. Veit/Photo: Tom McGrath

RECOMMENDED

It has been at least seven-hundred years since the Pied Piper first began playing his (or maybe her) flute. In all that time, I doubt there have been many more imaginative retellings than what is now playing at the Strawdog Theatre. Although at times appearing more like performance art than theater, this stripped-down original production—adapted and performed by The Forks & Hope Ensemble—sacrifices none of the lyrical language in bringing to stage a contemporary take on a classic dark tale. Infused along the way with well-timed pop music selections (courtesy of music director Austin Oie) and well-choreographed dance numbers (from movement and associate director Aileen McGroddy), “The Pied Piper” offers heaps of entertainingly creative energy. It also demonstrates a confident reverence to Robert Browning’s source material, enough so that its dark undertones are never trivialized. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chalk/Sideshow Theatre Company

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(left to right) Nina O'Keefe and Kathleen Akerley in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere of CHALK by ensemble member Walt McGough, directed by ensemble member Megan A. Smith.  Photo by Jonathan L. Green.

Nina O’Keefe and Kathleen Akerley/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

RECOMMENDED

Theater as a whole is starting to come around on sci-fi and fantasy. And while that might put it about twenty years behind the cultural zeitgeist (can’t wait for that three-part Avengers musical in the 2035 Broadway season), it’s also about dang time. There are new stories to tell, new worlds to conquer. And, besides, there have been so many plays set in the American living room that I’m afraid the furniture’s starting to prolapse.

Earlier this season there was the epic Kentucky-fried-Tolkien grandeur of The House Theatre’s “Hammer Trinity” and now Sideshow Theatre Company has brought us Walt McGough’s “Chalk” directed by Megan A. Smith. “Chalk” is the opposite of “The Hammer Trinity” in terms of scale—instead of dragon on zeppelin melees we are given two women in a dilapidated barn—but is its partner in spirit. The fantastical is on hand to illuminate the mundane. A play about an alien invasion is also a play about everyday alienation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Acrobatica Infiniti: The Nerd Circus/Acrobatica Infiniti Circus

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Natalie Abell/Photo: Nancy Behall

Natalie Abell/Photo: Nancy Behall

RECOMMENDED

Science fiction, fantasy and comic books are lousy with circuses. From the Flying Graysons to the Circus of Crime to whatever creepy clown Stephen King last wrote about, nerds seem to love a good circus. With this in mind, it seems like a no-brainer that someone somewhere would conceive of a nerd circus where the worlds of fandom and the circus collide. Enter Acrobatica Infiniti Circus.

Acrobatica Infiniti is a community of circus performers dedicated to creating connection between circus performance and geek fandom. Threading the middle of that particular Venn Diagram could have led to an epic disaster of a show, but Acrobatica Infiniti’s “The Nerd Circus” on Friday night was anything but. The show, directed by Tana Karo, and performed for one night only at the Vittum Theater, was funny, thrilling and surprisingly touching.

The night began with an introduction by an MC in a Superman t-shirt. He entered without any of the bombast you would normally expect from a circus ringmaster. At first this choice seemed off-putting, underselling the pomp and circumstance of the show, but over the course of the evening, guiding the audience from one performer to the next, he won us over with his wit, humility, humor and, of course, a few juggling tricks. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lunacy!/Jackalope Theatre

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(L-R): Malcolm Callan, J.P. Pierson, Scot West/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Malcolm Callan, J.P. Pierson, Scot West/Photo: Joel Maisonet

Why is it that conspiracy theories like, say, the one about the US government hiring director Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing, continue to endure? Is the belief in a vast conspiracy underlining all things really all that different from a belief in the innate, inalienable righteousness of one’s country? Could a man who lied to America about the moon landing then go on to lie about something bigger? Like maybe a war?

Patriotic paranoia is what rocket-fuels “Lunacy! (A Cryptohistorical Comedy)” from playwright Andrew Burden Swanson and Jackalope Theatre. Directed with gusto (occasionally too much gusto) by Gus Menary, the play is a jittery, paranoid farce. It’s about madmen doing the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons… and the inevitable fallout for those under their command. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Shining Lives: A Musical/Northlight Theatre

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(l to ) Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia, Tiffany Topol and Johanna McKenzie Miller/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia, Tiffany Topol and Johanna McKenzie Miller/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years, losing half its radioactive potency over that period. If evil and infamy have a half-life, then the tale of the “radium girls” will still be red hot centuries from now. They were the teenagers and young women who ninety years ago painted glow-in-the-dark numbers on clock and watch dials. They used their lips to sharpen brushes dipped in lethal radium paint, instructed to do so by employers who figured it was cheaper to ignore and obfuscate the danger than to confront it honestly.

Maybe Arthur Miller could have summoned up the requisite insight and outrage to properly convey what was done to Catherine Donohue of Ottawa, Illinois—who at the time of her death weighed sixty-five pounds—and to so many others in the name of corporate profits.

But this world premiere musical adaptation of Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play by Jessica Thebus (who also directs) sprinkles saccharine on the radium, and so fails to do justice to the girls’ slow-motion murder. Marnich and Thebus present their protagonists as proto-Rosie the Riveters, who find fulfillment and solidarity in the rhythm of mass production under the oversight of bean-counting managers and corrupt company doctors. That is, until they sicken and are summarily fired, at which point they sue the company for knowingly poisoning them, leading to years of litigation. Read the rest of this entry »

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