Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

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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 »

Review: Stoop Time/You&Me Productions

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Joni Arredia

Joni Arredia

“Stoop Time,” a new play staged by You&Me Productions, opens up with friends Jo (Angela Bullard) and Nora (Joni Arredia) having drinks, sharing laughs and recounting stories on Jo’s stoop. Their jovial drunken night is interrupted when a stranger, Reyna (Krystel V. McNeil), comes desperately seeking her lost necklace. Upon helping Reyna to find the necklace, Jo invites her to stay the night, but not without protest from both Nora and Jo’s ex-husband Wolfe (Colin Reeves). Wolfe reminds Jo that she always takes people in. Jo insists that Reyna is not a “stray,” that something is different about her. She turns out to be right. Reyna’s father Richard (Watson Swift), was the head doctor of the hospital Jo worked at while doing relief work in Haiti with Hut Outreach, when she was a nineteen-year-old student at DePaul University. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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 »