Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Gun Show/16th Street Theater

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Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

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Everyone has an opinion about guns. And everyone has a “gun story.” Whether it’s tragic, a tale of survival or just something from the news, everyone has a story that deals with guns. “The Gun Show,” directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, at 16th Street Theater explores various stories of one person, playwright EM Lewis, and her complex relationship with these weapons.

In this world premiere, 16th Street Theater artistic associate Juan Francisco Villa recites Lewis’ script exactly as directed in her rules: “1. Never put down the script. 2. Don’t leave anything out. 3. Don’t stop until the end.” It’s not often that a playwright is in the audience at every show to see if these rules are being followed, but in this case, the playwright is also the show’s main character; Villa was chosen to tell her story. There are several moments where a flashlight, like the kind a police officer would use, is turned toward Lewis—to call her out on something or to ask a question. When this happens, she never speaks, only gestures, and after a short amount of time, Villa continues to recite the script. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Qualms/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Karen Aldridge,  Keith Kupferer,  Arrington, Greg Stuhr,  Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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With the way that the phrase polyamory has been tossed around over the last few years you would think that modern social psychologists invented the concept. And according to a flurry of recent articles with titles like “Why Polyamory May Be The Answer To Your Dating Woes” and “There Is Life Outside Of Monogamy, And It Actually Works Amazingly Well” there are more and more people who seem to think that they—and perhaps their significant other(s)—would benefit from such arrangements. So Bruce Norris’ new play investigating “the lifestyle,” as a character calls it, enjoying its world premiere at Steppenwolf right now, seems right on time for the sexual zeitgeist.

Except his play is not about this hot topic, it’s about swingers. And though a character tosses the word “polyamory” out there in reference to their lifestyle at one point, it seems incongruous with their actions. For the record, while both involve open relationships, polyamory is the practice of being involved in multiple, ongoing, loving relationships, while swinging is essentially monogamy plus open sex. Since the setting for this show involves four distinct couples meeting for a sex party (from which they will all return to their separate homes), it seems that they fall firmly into the latter rather than the former. But then, maybe I’m wrong, the swingers here don’t get much time to discuss the specifics of their lifestyle. They’re mostly just being ranted at by the male half of an uneasy and on-edge new couple. Read the rest of this entry »

Poly Wants A Crackup: The Tension, and the Laughter, Explode in Steppenwolf’s “The Qualms”

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Qualms Reh_ -78

Bruce Norris and Kirsten Fitzgerald/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

When a sex comedy by a highly lauded playwright hits the Chicago stage, I get the call from Newcity to devise the sort of feature you just started reading. Seems this paper thinks all I care about is getting laughs and getting off. How obvious I must be.

Obvious ain’t a word I’d use to describe “The Qualms” by Bruce Norris, now in its world-premiere production at Steppenwolf. The show presents what is for most viewers a specifically unfamiliar social setting within what are generally very recognizable trappings. That is to say: it’s a swingers party, but after all it’s just a party. With much hilarity the play offers insight into our ridiculous human habit of trying to enjoy the company of others while maintaining an individual sense of righteousness, or at least control.

Before catching the show a few days later, I speak with Norris by phone. I start with a question firmly on both rails of my two-track mind: What’s inherently funnier, polyamory or monogamy?

“What’s inherently funnier is discomfort,” replies Norris. “Whichever one you’re more uncomfortable with is funnier. For American society at large, obviously polyamory is funnier than monogamy. Monogamy is held up as somehow sacred. And people who are in polyamorous communities are looked at as kinda ridiculous. It’s something I always wonder about: I’m anti-utopian but if we could actually not bring our fears and jealousies and possessiveness to relationships, wouldn’t that somehow be good?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: What to Listen For/the side project theatre company

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Aram Monisoff and Holly Allen/Photo: Scott Dray

Aram Monisoff and Holly Allen/Photo: Scott Dray

Just entering the tiny side project theater feels like an intrusion on somebody’s private space. The lack of separation between the single row of seats and the bedroom stage creates a sense of claustrophobic voyeurism. It is as though we are situated inside Margaret (Holly Allen) and her daughter Hannah (Julia Rose Duray), looking not at them, but rather through their eyes.

Such intense introspection works beautifully for an artist like Samuel Beckett, an allegorist of alienation and existential isolation. In lesser hands, this absolute subjectivity sooner or later dissolves into a ponderous self-indulgence.

This is the case, sadly, with the side project’s world premiere of Kathleen Tolan’s “What to Listen For,” a dream-play about… what, exactly? Hard to say, as the playwright never grounds the events or characters in a coherent, developed story, theme or context. All we know is that wannabe musician Margaret and talented but conflicted violinist Hannah are estranged, that their differences stem from a love-hate relationship with classical music, and that they both seek solace and answers from a series of dead white men—notably, Arnold Schoenberg (James Munson), Sigmund Freud (Andrew Bailes), Gustav Mahler (Aram Monisoff) and Glenn Gould (David Prete). These historical personages appear in the flesh, as shadow projections, and in the case of Mahler, as a rod puppet skipping along the tiny cardboard mountains of his native Bohemia. Read the rest of this entry »

Sails Pitch: Sting’s “Ship” Comes in After Long Songwriting Drought

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Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

By Dennis Polkow

“As a songwriter,” Sting admits, “I had experienced a long drought.” Rarely inactive, Sting, now sixty-two, had been involved with a number of projects since his last solo album of original material, 2003’s “Sacred Love.” Among these were an album of Renaissance master John Dowland, a Christmas album and even a reunion tour with the Police.

Nonetheless, how does a singer-songwriter who has won sixteen Grammy Awards and sold some 100 million albums worldwide across a thirty-five-plus-year career account for the experience of songwriter’s block?

“Too much me, me, me,” he jokes, “Self-obsession. I had to break this drought somehow and as it turned out, turning to the landscape of musical theater—a very exciting art form—I was suddenly giving voice to other people, characters other than myself. When I did, songs started coming out of me again like projectile vomiting.”

The end result, “The Last Ship,” is both a new Sting album of songs written for the musical of the same name that will have its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago, and the play itself, which is getting ready to begin previews on June 10 at the Bank of America Theatre. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tyrant/Sideshow Theatre Company

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 Clare O'Connor and Andy Lutz/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Clare O’Connor and Andy Lutz/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Working in a city like Chicago, especially downtown, the travel to work is filled with the homeless. The man shaking his paper cup, greeting those who get off the train. The woman with the dirt-smudged face, outside of Starbucks holding a sign that reads, “I’m Homeless. Please help.” The ex-vet with the dog, covered in a blanket lying in the fetal position on the corner. Traveling through these people on the trek to work can become downright exhausting. One begins to wonder, seeing the same faces, in the same positions, asking the same questions, holding the same signs, why can’t they just find jobs? Because after all, if you just gave people work the problem of homelessness would be solved, right?

This option is explored in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Kathleen Akerley’s “Tyrant.” Coupled with the two people sitting on stage with their backs facing the audience, the suspenseful music playing as you enter the theater warns that something tragic is ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: One Hit Wonders/Black Ensemble Theater

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Ereatha McCullough and Lyle Miller/Photo: Daniel Nicholas

Ereatha McCullough and Lyle Miller/Photo: Daniel Nicholas

The essence of pop music is that it demands nothing of us at all. It just reminds us of what every other pop song has already told us, permeating the airwaves and synapses with the honeyed propaganda of romantic codependency. Designed for three-minute doses administered to an audience busy doing other things, pop’s banality can turn into something surprisingly close to evil when experienced as a captive listener over the course of two-plus hours.

Such is Black Ensemble Theater’s premiere production of “One Hit Wonders.” For those who long to hear a rare live rendition of flash-in-the-pan novelty items like “Ring My Bell,” “It’s Raining Men” and “Da Butt,” this is their show. Those who have moved on in their lives post-disco may find themselves baffled by the mismatch on display here between impressive talent and pedestrian material. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »