Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Review: The Project(s)/American Theater Company

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(l to r) Kenn E. Head, Anji White and Eunice Woods/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Kenn E. Head, Anji White and Eunice Woods/Photo: Michael Brosilow

With its raft of good intentions, talented cast and relevant theme, this is a play that one very much wishes to like. But PJ Paparelli’s and Joshua Jaeger’s interview-based documentary take on the life, death and ambiguous transformation of Chicago’s massive housing projects offers neither a solid storyline nor point of view. Earnest and well-researched, “The Project(s)” comes off as a somewhat muddled and only intermittently engaging telling of a vital and potentially fascinating tale.

The eight performers portray various real residents of Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Wentworth Gardens and other mostly vanished monuments to bad architecture and bureaucratic indifference. Linda Bright Clay, Omar Evans, Kenn E. Head, Joslyn Jones, Stephen Conrad Moore, Penelope Walker, Anji White and Eunice Woods deserve kudos for their tough and tangy portrayals of the dreamers and victims, angry protesters and go-with-the-flow survivors who populated the highrise human storage systems of the postwar years. But under Paparelli’s direction, the characters never develop, and so the production is more of a collage of anecdote and incident than a three-dimensional human drama. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The White Road/Irish Theatre of Chicago

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(l to r) Michael McKeogh, Joseph Stearns, Gage Wallace and Nicholas Bailey/ Photo: Jackie Jasperson

Michael McKeogh, Joseph Stearns, Gage Wallace and Nicholas Bailey/ Photo: Jackie Jasperson

RECOMMENDED

I spent some time after I left Irish Theatre of Chicago’s “The White Road” thinking about how I would have fared. The play chronicles the famous 1914 Shackleton expedition—an attempt to cross Antarctica that ended… poorly. Stranded on the ice floes, their ship crushed and useless, Ernest Shackleton and his crew were forced to attempt an unimaginable journey homeward. The play does an astounding job of capturing the physical toll these men suffered and the mental grit necessary for them to keep going—across hundreds of miles of ice dead-ending in the open ocean.

The play is a rare world premiere for the Irish Theatre of Chicago—formerly Seanachai Theatre Company. It is written by founding member Karen Tarjan and based on historical accounts from the crew members. Featuring a tumult of different voices—English, Irish, Australian, Welsh—the play occasionally trips over itself in its first act. Between the ten-person cast, the various set pieces and the needs of the story to cover months and months of time, there is a lot of clutter. As the good ship Endurance moves ever closer to Antarctica, the play becomes herkier and jerkier. Director Robert Kauzlaric’s numerous light cues, wholesale scene changes and constant silhouetting of sailor testimonials adds to the chaos. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sense and Sensibility/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Megan McGinnis/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

The brilliance of writer/composer/lyricist and Tony nominee Paul Gordon, the tremulous set design of Kevin Depinet, and Donald Holder’s mystic lighting, guided by director Barbara Gaines, envelopes the audience for the world premiere of Gordon’s “Sense and Sensibility” inside a Renoir painting, with Debussy’s running rivulets underscoring. Though as intrinsically British as Susan E. Mickey’s period-perfect costumes, there is something deliciously French about the afterglow; the production lingers like the lightest puff pastry, the buttery richness circumventing even café noisette. All of Jane Austen’s earthy passion, bubbling under societal strictures, is on display. Yet the swirl of Gordon’s unpretentious melodies married to harmonically complex underpinnings renders the affair as impressionistic as a Degas ballerina. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Impossible Adventures of Supernova Jones/Forget Me Not Theatre Company

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(foreground) Tom Murphy and Brendan Mulhern, (background) Justin Martin Fill/Photo: Chris Zoubris

Tom Murphy and Brendan Mulhern, (background) Justin Martin Fill/Photo: Chris Zoubris

What would drive a man to venture out alone in the dark reaches of the galaxy? Your typical 1950s serial might have you believe that it is his impeccable sense of adventure, his desire to achieve the impossible. But what Aaron Senser’s new play “The Impossible Adventures of Supernova Jones” posits is probably closer to the truth: it’s because he’s running away from something far darker than the infinite abyss of space.

When the story begins (in medias res of course) the titular hero, played by Brendan Mulhern, is well on his way to completing his stated mission—to find the center of the known universe. So when Jones suddenly finds himself in a hospital bed in 1988 being fretted over by doctors and his distraught wife, Evelyn (Jill Mate) he is understandably confused. But what he assumes to be a trick by his enemies is in fact a trick of his own mind. Supernova Jones is nothing but a psychotic fantasy, a mourning man’s futile attempt to outrun his own grief. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Anna in the Afterlife/Polarity Ensemble Theatre

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(l-r) Sarah Eddy, Sheila Willis and Ellyn Nugent/Photo: Jackie Jasperson

Sarah Eddy, Sheila Willis and Ellyn Nugent/Photo: Jackie Jasperson

The publicity materials and preview articles written about Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s world-premiere production of “Anna in the Afterlife” admit that the play is a therapy exercise for the show’s creator. Playwright Richard Engling lost his dear friend to suicide, and then wrote a script that confronts his feelings about that death, his own mortality, and the search for the meaning of life.

Engling plays a character named Matthew (who can be taken as his surrogate within the realm of the story). Matthew is in a coma, but his spirit is in the afterlife, or at least the entrance lobby to the afterlife. There he meets a number of his deceased friends, and reviews and relives a series of scattered memories from his life. The first person he meets is his friend Anna (played in this instance by Ellyn Nugent). Anna has been split into three versions of herself in the afterlife: a small child (Sarah Eddy) who suffered from abuse; the woman that Matthew knew in life (Sheila Willis); and, finally, Nugent’s version, who has continued to age and change since death. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Bloodhound Law/City Lit Theater Company

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bloodhoundlaw press pic _2

David Fink, Alex Glossman, Brian Bradford/Photo: Tom McGrath

RECOMMENDED

Playwright Kristine Thatcher has written an important play, and it has landed in the hands of exactly the right theater company for its world premiere. Commissioned and produced as the fifth and final installment of City Lit’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Project, “The Bloodhound Law” examines Illinois’ abolitionist stance leading up to that war. Beginning with the story of journalist Elijah Lovejoy, who dared to print anti-slavery editorials and was subsequently shot to death in Alton, and ending the journey with Chicago’s Common Council’s internal skirmishes over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, or The Bloodhound Law, Thatcher’s historical dramatization of this tale of human rights denied gallops all the way from downstate to Chicago’s City Hall.

City Lit regularly produces adaptations of literary works, making this type of project particular to their province, and their team’s steady hand is very much in evidence. Director Terry McCabe wisely keeps his nine actors onstage throughout, giving them the freedom to rise from their seats, don a hat or a vest, and undertake another of the multiple characters assigned to all without the shuffling of entrances and exits. Liz Cooper’s lighting design keeps the focus of the narrative distinct, and dialect coach Catherine Gillespie succeeds with a yeoman’s assignment of forty-two characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Look, we are breathing/Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

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(l to r) Brendan Meyer and Lily Mojekwu/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Brendan Meyer and Lily Mojekwu/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Just because someone’s died doesn’t make their death a martyrdom. It doesn’t mean they were a saint. Complicated or downright negative feelings that a person had for someone when they were alive—whether they were a son, a student, an awkward teenage lover—can persist even after that person is dead. In fact, they can become even more complicated, more negative. Yet the thought that maybe, just maybe, the deceased was kind of a dumb jerk is not the kind of thing one says aloud at parties. And definitely not at wakes.

In her new play “Look, we are breathing” playwright Laura Jacqmin takes the audience on a deep dive through these post-tragedy feelings of ambivalence, bitterness and an inability to mourn. The play, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble under director Megan Shuchman, begins with the death of Mike (Brendan Meyer), a high schooler who crashes his car while driving home high and drunk from a hockey party. Read the rest of this entry »

Life After Death: Polarity Ensemble Theatre Gives Author New Life in “The Afterlife Trilogy”

Profiles, Theater, World Premiere 2 Comments »
(l to r) Ellyn Nugent, Richard Engling, Sheila Willis and Sarah Eddy/Photo: Jason Epperson

Ellyn Nugent, Richard Engling, Sheila Willis and Sarah Eddy/Photo: Jason Epperson

By Mary Kroeck

The arts community lost a staggering number of incredible talents in 2014. Arguably, no death caused the world so much shock as the suicide of Robin Williams. He and his works were beloved by so many that few could reason why or how he could no longer continue to live. Yet, in his death, he shined a staggeringly bright light on a topic that has far too long been in the dark: mental illness.

Long before news of Williams’ passing broke, Richard Engling and Polarity Ensemble Theatre were preparing to take on the enormous task of honoring one of Engling’s dear friends who also struggled with mental illness. Among a slew of other titles she was a passionate writer and an inspiring teacher, always challenging herself to set goals and meet or exceed them. Her name was Fern Chertkow and she and her story are getting a new life in “The Afterlife Trilogy,” which consists of two novels—“Visions of Anna” by Engling and one of Chertkow’s posthumously published works, “She Plays in Darkness”—and a play “Anna in the Afterlife,” also written by Engling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Moraine/Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Theater

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DarkRoomSmall

Friends are the opposite of Matthew McConaughey’s beloved “high school girls.” You keep getting older, and they keep getting older too. You change, they change. Eventually you might still be “friends” even though the people you are now are entirely different than the people you were when you first connected. Such is life. And such is life especially in your twenties.

This experience of being a twenty-something/someone is at the heart of Ryan Patrick Dolan’s new play “Moraine.” It begins at the bedside of Gus (Joel Reitsma) who is in an induced coma after a battle with cancer. His best friend Mark (Caleb Fullen) is at his side, bearing sarcasm like a pair of brass knuckles when his ex-girlfriend Kelly (Allie Kunkler) comes to pay Mark a visit. From there, “Moraine” skips back and forth through time. We see person by person how Mark and Gus’ friend group came to be as Mark helps his friend Russell (Terence Sims) open a successful line of boutique ice cream stores. Gus is one of their first hires, followed by Gus’ improv buddy Mackenzie (Becca Slack) and finally Kelly, an aspiring actress and former punk-band drummer. The group coalesces, and eventually disintegrates under the pressures of careers, breakups and just plain growing up. Read the rest of this entry »

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