Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Sweeter Option/Strawdog Theatre Company

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(l to r) Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart/Photo: Kyle Hamman

Michaela Petro and Sam Guinan-Nyhart/Photo: Kyle Hamman

We savor our mysteries for that flashpoint moment when all the pieces of the puzzle interlock perfectly. Red herrings can show up to dinner, as long as they make sense in the final analysis. Jagged changes in timeline can ratchet up the tension, as long as literality grants the audience equilibrium by the denouement.

Strawdog Theatre Company celebrates its 100th production with the world premiere of playwright John Henry Roberts’ second play, “The Sweeter Option.” This noirish murder mystery is served well by the scenic design of Joanna Iwanicka and the lighting of Jordan Kardasz. Director Marti Lyons’ cast fold and refold flats to create new scenes during the changes, push and pull furniture and props, and always remain in character. Intense moments shatter into darkness, and just as suddenly burst into awakening. Heath Hays’ sound design is a partner to the strategic madness that is just right for a thriller with a murderous, comedic bent. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: One Came Home/Lifeline Theatre

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(Center) Amanda Jane Long as Agatha Burkhardt, with (L to R) Miriam Reuter, Patrick Blashill, Dan Granata, and Jeff Kurysz/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

(Center) Amanda Jane Long, with (l to r) Miriam Reuter, Patrick Blashill, Dan Granata and Jeff Kurysz/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

The adaptation of a novel into a stage play is as delicate a proposition as the spinning of a spider’s web. Novels written in the first person may not be as dialogue-driven as those of Jane Austen, requiring a reach into other perspectives to find the words. Those who strive to create an ethos as much as tell a story may create challenges by their lack of linearity. And those written for a specific readership may be difficult to turn into a theater piece for a larger audience. Chicago has come to depend upon Lifeline Theatre to find the right material, and to use their expertise to assist the adaptor in illuminating a story and its characters in a completely new language.

Unfortunately, Jessica Wright Buha’s adaptation of novelist Amy Timberlake’s “One Came Home,” directed by Elise Kauzlaric in this world premiere, falls short of the goal. Word-echoing that at first warms, particularly when traded between characters and in different situations, becomes annoying before the end of the first act. While giving dead characters the opportunity to contribute ghostly revelations can be cathartic, to show people who are not dead as ghosts is to tell a lie for which an audience may not be forgiving. The elongated road trip, with the parallel journeys of solving a mystery and coming of age, prevent the story from achieving a steady climb toward an apex. Exactly which girl was killed, wearing which dress, why, and by whom? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Samsara/Victory Gardens

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(l to r) Behzad Dabu, Arya Daire, and Joe Dempsey/Photo: Michael Courier

Behzad Dabu, Arya Daire and Joe Dempsey/Photo: Michael Courier

Lauren Yee’s “Samsara” is sort of like an inverse of history; it begins as farce and ends as tragedy. However Victory Gardens’ world-premiere production seems to forget that the tragedy part is meant to be a surprise. One very large design flaw—literally large as it consists of the entire set—creates a dark and murky tone that works counter to Yee’s playful one. A large black scrim covers most of the back wall and, combined with the bare stage beneath, creates a literal void that sucks the energy right out of it.

And it’s sad, too, because both Yee’s script and the play’s vibrantly generous cast deserve better. Lori Myers and Joe Dempsey play a perfectly imperfect couple by the name of Katie and Craig. They want kids but are unable to have any—cervical tumor—and they aren’t able to afford an American surrogate, so they decide to off-shore. Through a service they hire a woman in India named Suraiya (Arya Daire) to carry their child to term.

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Review: White Guy on the Bus/Northlight Theatre

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(l to r) Francis Guinan and Patrese D. McClain/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Francis Guinan and Patrese D. McClain/Photo: Michael Brosilow

About midway through act one of Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus” (now receiving its world premiere at Northlight Theatre) veteran inner-city teacher Roz (Mary Beth Fisher) states that her students are too busy slashing each other to engage in any self-cutting (like they do in the more affluent, whiter schools). This is a memorable moment, for it is one of the few times that the play, instead of simply reinforcing racial stereotypes, actually expresses something novel.

Yes, some of the presented stereotypes are not often talked about in polite circles (like the racist principal who is, gasp, African American) but they exist nonetheless. So you have the maybe do-gooder older white man (Francis Guinan, doing everything possible to make this script work) who, when pushed past his limits, talks about African Americans always having excuses, along with the incredibly naïve Molly (Amanda Drinkall) appearing shocked by the relatively low expectations Roz has for some of her illiterate students. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Christmas, Holiday, Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »

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 »