Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Look, we are breathing/Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
(l to r) Brendan Meyer and Lily Mojekwu/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Brendan Meyer and Lily Mojekwu/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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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 »

Review: Between You, Me and the Lampshade/Teatro Vista

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TeatroVista_YouMeLampshade_1

Ayssette Muñoz and Sandra Marquez/Photo: Joel Maisonet

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We all have secrets. Some bind us to others; some keep us bound in silence to ourselves; very few remain concealed. “Between You, Me and the Lampshade,” a world premiere written by Raúl Castillo, explores the lengths some go to hide the truth and the comedy that goes along with trying to keep something (or in this case, someone) in the closet.

Teatro Vista’s executive artistic director, Ricardo Gutierrez, clearly had a vision for this show. The cast, led by Teatro Vista ensemble member and Jeff Award-winning actress Sandra Marquez, brilliantly takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster exploring family, love, immigration and the powerful (yet sometimes frightening) idea of what it can mean to be free.

In southern Texas, Jesse (Marquez) struggles to take care of her son Woody (Tommy Rivera-Vega), while also maintaining a career. When Amparo (Ayssette Muñoz), a stranger with a bad snakebite, breaks into her home in the middle of the night, Jesse decides to help her rather than shoot her and a series of unpredictable events unfold. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Profiles, Theater, World Premiere 1 Comment »
(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: AWK Presents… The Yuk Yuk Hour/The Annoyance Theatre

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues No Comments »

AWKPosterFinal(RGBforPosting)Some people, when moved to frenetic laughter, are prone to requiring so much air to replace the air lost due to their audible guffaws that they suck in through their noses, creating a snorting sound that usually does little to stifle their laughter and is often a source of enjoyment to all who surround. Everyone has experienced this. Some lady behind me was snorting during this show, and I laughed, because she was having a great time. It was funny to hear her snort. Unfortunately, this woman’s snorting might have been the high mark of laughter throughout the show.

“AWK Presents… The Yuk Yuk Hour” is a collection of sketches that range in value from intriguing concepts with loads of potential to semi-disastrous recycled drivel. Sometimes, shows are just flat-out terrible and you walk away feeling fine because, hey, you can’t win ‘em all. This show was somehow more frustrating because the concepts had some legs, at times long, toned legs with supple quads and sculpted calves. You root for the sketch to pan out because the concepts are worthy of great writing and acting. The letdown is then perhaps greater when, out of maybe twenty sketches, only three end up providing genuine laughter. Back into your corduroy jeans, svelte gams. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Anything Goes/Marriott Theatre

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

ANYTHING GOES_Stephanie Binetti and Cast JK

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It’s always an event when Chicago can steal director/choreographer Marc Robin away from his duties as artistic director of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Fulton Theatre to work his special magic within a theater community that still considers him their own, and Marriott’s “Anything Goes” shows Robin’s gifts at full sail. Just never mind comparing this 1987 version with other productions, revivals or films with which you’re familiar, in terms of musical numbers, characters or plot lines. You’re on a ship, and you left all your cast albums at home. Pull up a deck chair.

Stephanie Binetti’s Reno Sweeney tap dances away from the Merman model, and ups the ante on Ethel’s Broadway successors of sexier sensibilities. Binetti scorches with legs that won’t quit, a voice with a burnishing belt and a warming mix, and a playful way with the character’s brassier lines; this is a performance to see and hear. Summer Naomi Smart is achingly vulnerable as Hope Harcourt. Although this version robs Hope of her introduction-ballad and tosses her Latin-flavored, edifying, eleven o’clock number to one of the boys for comic fodder, Smart delivers a fully fleshed character; her vibrant soprano makes much of the single, slight ballad afforded. Read the rest of this entry »

Imagination at Dusk: Nicolas Blanc Finds his Language For the Joffrey

Dance, Recommended Dance Shows No Comments »
Photo: Cheryl Mann

Photo: Cheryl Mann

Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Nicolas Blanc sits in a folding chair in a sunny studio room of the Joffrey tower, gently cueing the entrances and changes for five dancers in his short ballet entitled “Evenfall,” uttering the occasional, supportive “good” or “nice” for a well-landed movement. Ballet Master for the Joffrey since 2011, Blanc is about to add his own choreography to the company repertory for the first time, which appears in a “New Works” program alongside household name Christopher Wheeldon and rising-star resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet Justin Peck.

“I’ve wanted to choreograph a long time…since I was a child,” Blanc said. “And I think there are parallels with being a Ballet Master. That parallel is about how you move people in a room; you’re a bit like a conductor. I’ve been in charge of so many choreographers’ work—Nijinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ was on my shoulders, I recently reset ‘Incantations’—and that helps me; their work informs me about their creative process. I’m learning from what has come before. I’m in the process of creating my own language.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Red Handed Otter/A Red Orchid Theatre

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Ashley Neil, Luce Metrius, Bob Kruse, Guy Van Swearingen

Ashley Neil, Luce Metrius, Bob Kruse, Guy Van Swearingen

In our world of bullet points and sound bytes, the second act of an entertainment seems presented with the challenge of proving its worth. A bristling Act I is often sadly followed by a deflated Act II, and these annoyances prevent us from contact with our smartphones. Enter the eighty-ninety-minute play, musical or opera, sans intermission: All the story, constant thrills, you’re sated and somewhere else in two hours. Still, it is incumbent upon the presenting artists to keep the pedal to the metal if they aren’t going to let us pee. A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of playwright Ethan Lipton’s “Red Handed Otter” is chock full of disarmingly talented actors and designers. But the resonant premise is insufficient to the responsibility of ninety minutes.

In “Red Handed Otter,” a zany family-by-circumstance, all marginalized, societal misfits, has learned to communicate through stories about their animals. (Or lack thereof.) Their dreams and fears may be attributed to their pets, or they may talk about them in a way that conveys emotion, without taking responsibility for their tone. We’ve all met someone with so many charming stories and phone-pics about and of their pet-compatriots that it seems we never hear about their particular, personal journeys. This is not to say that their tales and photos aren’t fun, or that we don’t enjoy and care about them, and this is why “Red Handed Otter” has something going for it, out of the gate. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Herd/Steppenwolf

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(left to right) Audrey Francis (Claire), Cliff Chamberlain (Mark), Francis Guinan (Ian), Lois Smith (Patricia) and John Mahoney (Brian)/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Audrey Francis, Cliff Chamberlain, Francis Guinan, Lois Smith and John Mahoney/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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The family-sitting-room genre is built on secrecy. Sometimes it’s a literal secret, one that lurks from the opening curtain until just the right moment—usually right before an intermission—for it to be revealed. Other times, and this is the case with Rory Kinnear’s “The Herd,” it’s not an actual secret so much as it is a repression of truth. People feel a certain way, but they keep it to themselves. Only once the gears of plot have started to grind against their psyche do they finally unleash these private, pent-up thoughts. It makes for a handy catharsis, to have a son/daughter/husband/wife finally tell their mother/father/husband/wife what they really think.

Kinnear’s play, his first, is an efficient catharsis delivery device. It doesn’t surprise, but it doesn’t disappoint either. Kinnear is a major stage actor in the UK—his bio in the program is equal parts modest and mic drop—and he has written a play for actors. Despite the English setting, it’s a play perfectly suited to the Steppenwolf style. Director Frank Galati and the cast revel in the play’s climactic inter-family throw downs. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Penelope, O Penelope/Theatre Y

Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Melissa Lorraine (foreground) and Kevin V. Smith (silhouette)/Photo:

Melissa Lorraine (foreground) and Kevin V. Smith (silhouette)/Photo: Devron Enarson, Dev Photography

People will probably never stop basing plays (and movies and books) on “The Odyssey.” Homer’s ancient epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ long return home from Troy is elemental to our understanding of heroism, adventure and longing. French playwright Simon Abkarian focuses his play “Penelope, O Penelope” on the journey’s end: when Odysseus finally makes it home to Ithaca, reunites with his son Telemachus and—at least in Homer’s version—brutally murders all the suitors gathered around his wife, Penelope. Abkarian adopts the basic situation—lost soldier/father, mourning mother, lecherous suitor, a son who also does stuff—and spins it into his own tale of love, loss, sex and violence.

Unfortunately the results are often stultifying and ponderous, at least in director Eva Patko’s production with Theatre Y, the show’s US- and English-language debut in a translation from Theatre Y’s artistic director, Melissa Lorraine. Lorraine also plays Dinah, the show’s Penelope figure, while actor Rich Holton plays both her long-lost husband, Elias, and erstwhile son, Theo. As Dinah’s landlord/suitor, Ante, Kevin V. Smith gives the play’s most dynamic performance. He’s a wretch, but a sympathetically pathetic one. A late scene between Elias and Ante crackles with gangster-noir energy. It’s the show’s high point, of which there are too few. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Doll’s House/Definition Theatre Company

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doll99

Photo: Joe Mazza – Brave Lux Photography

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The depth of a woman’s love is unmatched. For the man lucky enough to capture a woman’s heart, she will move heaven and earth for him, even at times to the detriment of both her physical and spiritual self. Unfortunately for some, the men she’d cross oceans for might barely jump puddles for her.

Although Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” premiered in Copenhagen in 1879, Definition Theatre Company’s adaptation, written and directed by Michael Halberstam, still rings true. While some may argue that the language and fashion of the times is dated, what is not dated is the character Nora. Her story, with subtle changes, is the story of so many women in 2015.

Nora (played with deep sincerity by Miriam Lee) has so much pure love in her heart for her husband Torvald (played with commanding presence by Tyrone Phillips) that she is willing to go against moral and legal code to help save his life. This choice has come back to haunt her in the form of Krogstad (a poised Christopher Sheard) whose job is on the line because of Nora’s illegal act. Read the rest of this entry »

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