Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Vandal/Steep Theatre Company

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Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor/Photo: Lee Miller

Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor/Photo: Lee Miller

RECOMMENDED

Playwright Hamish Linklater’s first play is being billed by Steep Theatre as “funny.” But there was not a single laugh from the audience the night I saw the show. Alright, there were two abrupt snorts that might have been a reaction to a tripped funny-wire but, in this production, the play is hardly comical. What “The Vandal” is, is a very smart, well-paced discussion of life, death, truth and love, from an existential viewpoint. When a freshman playwright sits down at a table with Sartre, Beckett, and Stoppard, and uses all the right forks and doesn’t slurp the soup, attention must be paid.

It is hardly possible to comment on the plot without giving away its surprising twists and turns, and naming the questions the audience will want to ask themselves on their way home. I’ll go so far as to say that anything might be true or not, someone might love someone or not, and someone might be dead. Or not. And listen for the rapid-fire, almost thrown-away warblings, for that’s when the birds are singing the “real” story. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: River North Dance Chicago/Harris Theater

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Photo: Cheryl Mann

Photo: Cheryl Mann

RECOMMENDED

“I was surprised,” choreographer Ivan Perez said when I asked how it was to work with the dancers of River North Dance Chicago. “They’re very jazz-based and I was surprised how invested they were in learning this work and how they took to it. It’s great to work with companies well established in this vocabulary, but it can be more interesting to work with dancers looking to challenge themselves and do something new.”

Perez is an independent choreographer, born in Spain and residing in the Netherlands, where he has lived since his stint as a company member of Nederlands Dans Theater. He is in Chicago by invitation of Frank Chaves, artistic director of River North, which celebrates twenty-five years this fall. The invitation was essentially a cold call; Chaves found a clip from Perez’s “Flesh” on YouTube, and the thee minutes worth of duet he saw was enough to inspire Chaves to call up the young choreographer in The Hague and talk about a visit to set the piece on River North. “It was my first experience shopping online for a choreographer,” Chaves said, “and I scored.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Both Your Houses/Remy Bumppo

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Noah Simon, Peter A. Davis, Linda Gillum, David Darlow

Noah Simon, Peter A. Davis, Linda Gillum, David Darlow

RECOMMENDED

Somewhere in the dusky realm between classic and forgettable lies Maxwell Anderson’s political tragicomedy “Both Your Houses.” Now undergoing a nifty revival by Remy Bumppo, the play arrives just in time for the 2014 midterm election and its attendant theater of mudslinging, malicious, big-budget stupidity.

The 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winner shows its age in many ways, from the creaky melodrama of its structure, which pits the uselessly good against the simplistically wicked, to its antediluvian political economics and social attitudes, which make Archie Bunker look PC. But for all of that, this is a production worth watching for the skill of its all-around execution, its still-zingy portrayal of the interface of avarice and ego that is Washington, D.C., and for actor David Darlow’s tour de force as Representative Solomon (Sol) Fitzmaurice, a corrupt politician of Falstaffian charm and insight, who is revealed here as one of the great and unjustly neglected characters of the American stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Wild Party/Bailiwick Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

At the end of a party I usually feel exhausted. All my energy has been spent. Walking out of Bailiwick Chicago’s “The Wild Party” I felt much the same way. Dulled and listless, like all I wanted to do was pitch over into my bed and pass out. But of course there are two different kinds of exhausted. There’s the good kind, where every last ounce of vigor and joy and joie de vivre has been rung out of me, and I can go to sleep knowing I’ve lived a night well-lived. Then there’s the not-so-good kind, where it feels like I’ve just survived the zombie apocalypse—if the zombies were really interested in drunkenly yammering  about what they did when they went WOOFing after graduation—and I’ve just decided to lay down in a field somewhere and die already. “The Wild Party” left me feeling much like the former —satisfied and spent—even if most of what happened in it bore far more resemblance to the latter. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Cryptogram/Profiles Theatre

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(l to r) Darrell D. Cox, Abigail Boucher and Aaron Lamm/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Darrell W. Cox, Abigail Boucher and Aaron Lamm/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

In the first act of “The Crytpogram” the comedic potential of David Mamet’s easily recognized, clipped, stylized, supposedly conversational dialogue sometimes pops up from the mire of simmering domestic duress. Nearly self-parodic in spots, but too knowing and well-written to be dismissed as such, the terse but dense exchanges are at times just plain funny. Go ahead and laugh. By the third act, the script is as stripped of humor as the stage is of home furnishings. A big reveal midway through the show puts a stop to any comedy. A perilous but unresolved ending suggests tragedy.

Much of the humor derives from how the most mundane aspects of conversation are treated with urgent emergency or relentless inquiry. Once we start to see real threats mount, the stylistic yet human wordplay veers from humorous hyperbole and quizzical riddling toward ineffectual, hopeless, increasingly aggressive, occasionally annoying chatter. Everyone can play around with words when skirting the issue; when the truth starts to crack through, there’s no fun left in the contest. It’s a shift in tone that mirrors the journey of the play’s three characters, and is expertly executed by the playwright and wonderfully realized in this Profiles Theatre production. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Capriccio/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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A

RECOMMENDED

Loaded with the star power of soprano Renée Fleming, propelled by music director and conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ unique understanding of the score, and set in the 1920’s framework of John Cox’s controversial production, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s revisitation of Richard Strauss’ “conversation piece” “Capriccio” must be considered in light of its weight as an event that crosses boundaries and begs alliances. Critically argued both for—for its fresh sense of comedy and perception of character—and against as mocking not merely the subject matter but the composer himself, Cox’s direction (here realized by Peter McClintock) was last seen at Lyric twenty years ago with Sir Andrew himself at the orchestral helm; the final jewel in this outing’s headband is provided by Fleming, known to many non-opera goers as a singer of popular song, jazz and the National Anthem.

No newcomer to the role, or to this production itself, Fleming sounds as fresh of voice as ever, and never provokes her instrument to war against the unforgiving acoustics of the hall. If the fake fur around the sleeves of her first gown left both Fleming and her fellows searching for her hands, and if its turquoise shade clashed biliously with the greens of some set pieces, Fleming looked every inch the girlish, early widowed wisp, moving gracefully about the somewhat confusing set, with its period-appropriate furnishings scattered in front of the drawing-room backdrop of a different century. A natural actor and giving scene partner, Fleming never stinted the text. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Owners/Interrobang Theatre Project

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(left to right) Sarah Gise, Brynne Barnard, Matt Browning and Abbey Smith/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Sarah Gise, Brynne Barnard, Matt Browning and Abbey Smith/Photo: Emily Schwartz

RECOMMENDED

From our youth we are indoctrinated to believe that only the “best” are rewarded. The “best” student gains admission to the premier university. The “best” athlete wins the ultimate championship title. The “best” employee lands the most coveted promotion. The “best” performer wins the most prestigious award. It is this type of honor system that breeds a culture of ambition that will stop at nothing to get to the top, even if it is morally or ethically wrong.

But what about those who have no desire to be the best? Those who are satisfied with the cards they were dealt, and have no desire to shuffle the deck? Those who are content just being stagnant, and calmly wait until their time on earth has expired? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Trade Winds & Aires de Cambio/Hedwig Dances and DanzAbierta

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Photo: Susana Pous

Photo: Susana Pous

RECOMMENDED

A long-growing partnership between Jan Bartoszek, founder and director of Hedwig Dances, and Susana Pous, resident choreographer of the Havana-based DanzAbierta, comes to fruition next weekend in two intersecting pieces created in tandem. The difficulties of traveling between Cuba and the U.S. forced Bartoszek and Pous to work primarily separately, but “Trade Winds” and “Aires de Cambio” interlock on stage and are, in subject, context and structure, about exchange. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Goldfish Project: Procreation/The New Colony

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TheGoldfishProject-1
RECOMMENDED

Comedian Shawn Bowers has an intriguing, slightly stomach-churning hobby: he poses as a young, attractive woman (Margie) on dating sites, baiting and then reeling men in for revealing conversation. Shawn has spent years pursuing this game, and periodically presents his research in the form of a new installment in his series. The newest offering contains the qualifier “Procreation.” Bowers explained the reason for this branding in a short section of the extended skit (about seventy minutes without intermission) but, while slimed with the same faintly stinky charm that permeates the entire piece, he lost me entirely on this point. I was suspicious as to why this comedy sketch-cum-cultural anthropological exercise needs not just one “curator,” (Bowers) but two, with Sarah Gitenstein adding her curation-ness. But then I have no idea of just how extensive the content of Bowers’ research might be, or what one does to be qualified to maintain and interpret the scientific findings at hand.   Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Rosas danst Rosas/MCA Stage

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Photo courtesy Herman Soregeloos

Photo: Herman Soregeloos

RECOMMENDED

“Rosas danst Rosas” is a dance out of time. Even though Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker created it thirty years ago at the tender age of twenty-four, the quietly captivating piece for four women feels as though it could have been made yesterday. The piece instantly launched the success of De Keersmaeker’s new company “Rosas” and inspired two generations of contemporary choreographers to follow. The timeless appeal of “Rosas danst Rosas” is in its simplicity and honesty: movement phrases are constructed from natural, everyday gestures and body positions, each holding a subtle and familiar mood. The piece moves from floor to feet, starting with phrases that alternate between feverish restlessness and detailed stillness, the occasional slap of a hand on the floor, sharp inhalations and slow exhalations, the rustling of fabric against skin and floor the only score. The second movement—the most famous section of the piece—takes place seated in chairs to the ticking clock score created for the piece by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch. Six simple phrases, punctuated by relaxed postures, are repeated and rearranged in a complex visual counterpoint. Read the rest of this entry »