Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show/About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising

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Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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This gal’s got some real balls. Is that too blue for you? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist such a nice opening. Oh, she’s got one of those too.

Lest you think I’m being too irreverent, be advised that the protagonist of “Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” is frequently in your face about the uncommonly dual genitalia s/he possesses. Portrayed by actress Fawzia Mirza in a commanding and at times fierce near-solo turn in About Face Theatre/Silk Road Rising’s downtown production, the titular character delights—like any good comedian—in confronting the audience. If you’re squeamish about anatomy or gender designations, be forewarned. And if you’re British, be prepared to bear the brunt of an increasingly fiery assault on your imperial history that surpasses even the abuse heaped upon Brahman/i’s sidekick, a hapless but sympathetic (and sympathizing) bass player who commits no less a sin than daring to sit, uncommitted, partly in the dark and partly in the spotlight reserved for the star.

It’s Brahman/i who really straddles the line between dark and light, and so many other borders as well—at times making a case for understanding and tolerance, and at other times venting with a self-assured righteousness befitting one named after supreme, infinite reality. Also like the Hindu concept of Brahman, our hero in this play escapes gender classification. S/he flirts with such designation—and with some of the audience as well—but don’t expect any easy answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Haunting of Hill House/City Lit Theater

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HillHouse-press-photo-3-378x400

Sheila Willis and Edward Kuffert/Photo: Austin Oie

The early spring evening turned ominously autumnal as I approached the holy stone building that houses City Lit Theater. Unfortunately nothing nearly as spooky transpired inside during City Lit’s world-premiere adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House.” City Lit specializes, as their name implies, in bringing literary works to the stage. Here they adapt an acclaimed novel by Shirley Jackson, best remembered for her unnerving short story “The Lottery.” The tale of Hill House centers on an investigation of its purported supernatural characteristics spearheaded by one Dr. Montague (an appropriately haughty Edward Kuffert) and the effect his exploratory stay in the old mansion has on the doctor and the handful of guests he has invited to join him.

The book is widely praised as an exemplar of psychological terror and was turned into a well-regarded film within a few years of its 1959 release. Owing to its literary origins, this Hill House is a wordy affair. The 1963 movie version has the cinematic bag of tricks at its disposal to assist in the transition to the big screen. This stage adaptation instead embraces the verbosity as a strength, which—despite the convincing set design, heavy reliance on flashy lighting and thunderous sound effects and amenable turns from a capable cast—yields an evening not so different from a staged reading. Indeed, much of the production’s nearly two-and-a-half hours is given over to a pair of narrators. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher/Broadway In Chicago

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Photo: Jenny Anderson

Photo: Jenny Anderson

Superhero origin stories are interesting beasts. We know precisely where the story will end up (a hero is born!) before it even begins. What matters in this subgenre (if that’s what it can be called) is not so much what the ultimate outcome is, but rather how to get the story from point T-minus A to point A in the most interesting way without making the pre-known destination look like a foregone conclusion. And of course it’s preferable to toss some new characters into the mix while also providing new insight into existing characters. “Peter and the Starcatcher”—written by Rick Elice based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson—handles most of these tasks with goofy gusto, giving us a helter-skelter background story for the puckish Peter Pan.

The original Broadway production won five Tony Awards in 2012 (winners for scenic, costume, lighting and sound design serve as the design team for this production and it certainly shows). The imaginative design work—a clever combination of faux bootstrappy big-budget costumes and set pieces and truly elaborate lighting and sound design—helps to sell a story that may not necessarily be more than the sum of its parts. Because despite the impressively inventive delivery of this story by an energetic and engaged cast—directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers pull earnestness and meta-asides from these actors in equal measure—Elice’s script is a bit too self-indulgently silly for its own good. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Art + Activism/Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble

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14RECOMMENDED

What, exactly, is danz theatre? According to modern dance pioneer Rudolf Von Laban, danz theatre seeks “to unite all art media to achieve an all-embracing, radical change in humankind.” Such are the roots of Ellyzabeth Adler’s Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble. As her mission declares, this is “performance with a purpose.”

“The Fluid Flow Fluidly,” choreographed by Brittany Brown, uses a series of mantras and a rich, striking movement vocabulary to invite the audience into a state of flow. Lisa Leszczewicz’s “Penumbra” dances us through the “space between shadow and light” and explores the process of change. Ellyzabeth Adler breathes fresh life into T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland with a haunting mix of dance, physical theater, music and visual art. Following WWI, Eliot’s poem expressed the confusion and longing of a “lost generation.” Adler’s performance sheds light on our own wastelands—those parts of life which are decaying both inside and out, individually and collectively. Her work gives voice to the connection we seek and the beauty that may be found despite, or even because of, the wasteland. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Drift deep, loose/Hedwig Dances

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Photo courtesy Bill Frederking

Photo courtesy Bill Frederking

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March is an in-between time. One day we are hopefully braving forty-degree sunshine in sweaters and sunglasses, convincing ourselves of warmth. The next we’re succumbing to parkas and mittens, watching our breath trail out behind us. Spring, growth, warmth, life—it is all so close but still just beyond reach. The turning of seasons has long provided many a rich artistic metaphor. In “Drift deep, loose,” creative director of Hedwig Dances Jan Bartoszek draws her inspiration from these tensions of thawing winter. The piece will debut as part of the spring show, “Markings.”

Simple costumes not only clothe the dancers but serve as props, creating new spaces and opportunities for exploration. The piece is set to classical music interspersed with sounds of nature. The audience is seated on both sides of an uncluttered stage. Like nature herself, the tone is pure and elemental. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Thinner Than Water/Gift Theatre

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Lynda Newton and Brittany Burch/Photo: Claire Demos

That old adage about the strength of family ties is given a careful re-examination in Melissa Ross’ “Thinner Than Water.” Relentless from the start, the play begins with three half-siblings debating whether or not they should tend to their very sick father (a chain-smoking, emotionally unavailable man his children call Martin instead of Dad). Taking affront to this imposition is the oldest sibling Renee (played perfectly by Lynda Newton) who bitterly (and quite accurately) predicts that she will be the one left doing all the hard work. Cassie (Brittany Burch, who wisely plays her character with more edge than vulnerability) and stoner Gary (a very good Michael Patrick Thornton) are more forgiving of the old man and are willing to go out and “win the better person award.” Also in this mix is their father’s current girlfriend Gwen (Donna McGough), a seemingly flighty, non-stop talker. In between dealing with this sudden drama, the three siblings also confront struggling relationships and their own limitations with intimacy and trust. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Songs From An Unmade Bed/Pride Films & Plays

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(l to r)  Jordan Phelps and Kevin Webb

Jordan Phelps and Kevin Webb

The musical or operetta or opera or lyric theater phoneme (depending upon whom you speak with and how empty the champagne bottle) “Candide” was birthed by Voltaire, and enjoyed the word-workings and “improvements” of Lillian Hellman, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri and John Wells. But the amorphous masterpiece is held together by the duct tape of Leonard Bernstein’s music. Compositionally, harmonically, thematically, the music drags all of the wordsmiths’ brilliant meanderings into a solidified celebration. And this remains the accepted formula for a successful musical evening of theater; the task of stitching together the genius of the book-writer, the librettist, and multiple credited- and uncredited-script doctors falls squarely upon the shoulders of the composer.

But must it always be so? What if a myriad of composers contribute to a work that congeals by the alchemy of a single lyricist? Pride Films & Plays’ production of “Songs From An Unmade Bed” does exactly that. What is more cutting edge than a lyric entertainment that supports music from composers as far afield as contemporary opera giant Jake Heggie, and singer, songwriter, actress and composer Debra Barsha? Lyricist Mark Campbell, who has been profiled in Opera News as one of the twenty-five people “posed…to become major forces in opera in the coming decade,” is proven by this production to be a person who tells stories, stories that we all want to hear, to take to our hearts, and then take home and hash and rehash. The “cross-over” between musical theater and opera for which we must revere and blame that Sondheim fellow continues to redefine what brings a contemporary audience to a seat in a theater. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Bible Bingo/Royal George Theatre

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Good Bible Bingo photoVicki Quade, creator of  “Put the Nuns in Charge” and co-writer of “Late Nite Catechism,” has put together an interactive show filled with Catholic humor. Our Lady of Good Fortune is in need of money. So, Mrs. Mary Margaret O’Brien (Vicki Quade) decides to host a good old-fashioned bingo fundraiser.

As with “Late Nite Catechism” the host of “Bible Bingo” rotates among several actresses. The show is scripted, but is lightly improvised based on audience participation.  Quade had little trouble entertaining the largely Catholic audience the night I attended. She is a truly gifted improviser. Even her conversations with a few rather tipsy audience members were handled with the utmost professionalism and cunning humor, commenting that they were “filled with spirit, but not the Holy Spirit.” Her quick wit solidifies why “Late Nite Catechism” has been running for more than twenty years. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Moses(es)/Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group

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Photo courtesy Julieta Cervantes

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

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Like so many experiences in life, the profundity of performance is in simple, honest moments—a gesture, the repetition of a phrase physical or sung, courageous silences—and there is no question: the work of Reggie Wilson resonates deep. Wilson’s work, inspired by the spirituality of the African Diaspora, seems raw on the surface, but the precise craft of his movement language, use of music, staging and light come together with a specificity that strips away anything extra and distills the performance down to its very soul. His most recent piece, “Moses(es),” is a visual poem on migration and culture, inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Moses, Man of the Mountains.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sandalwood/Tympanic Theatre Company and the side project

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Sandalwood_001_WEBCreators want the best for the things they make; every song composed should win a Grammy, every book can be the great American novel. Given that artists always dream big, it’s a bitter disappointment when an impulse evolves into something they hadn’t planned on. Just ask a screenwriter.

A carpenter (a suitably laconic Sean Thomas) tracks down his creation (livewire Anthony Stamilio) through the rough-n-tumble West. After drinkin’, lovin’ and killin’, the carpenter’s puppet has become human, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. Pinocchio’s a real boy, and that ain’t good.

Thomas’ sadness captures the horror his work wracks up and Stamilio’s goofy energy belies the devastation his character leaves behind. A revulsion-tinged monologue from Jillian Rea creepily communicates what it’s like to be the object of this creature’s affections. Read the rest of this entry »