Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle/Steep Theatre Company

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(l to r) Alex Gillmor, Jeff Duhigg, Ashley Neal/ Photo: Lee Miller

Alex Gillmor, Jeff Duhigg, Ashley Neal/Photo: Lee Miller

With “The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle,” Steep Theatre Company dares to ask the big question of whether a person’s life matters at all; if a life lived simply and quietly can be something more to the people with whom the person interacts.

Ross Dungan’s play revolves around a trial or hearing of sorts that takes place a couple of days after the death of Eric Argyle, whose post-mortem incarnation is played by Jeff Duhigg. This trial is taking place in the afterworld, and there is pressure on Eric and his interrogators (Alex Gillmor and Ashley Neal) to get a decision made as soon as possible.  As part of this trial, we are shown flashbacks of a series of events in Eric’s life. Within these, the titular character is portrayed by Pat Whalen.

We watch as Eric struggles to deal with the emotions evoked by seeing his past.  We see that struggle.  And yet there is so much that we do not see. Read the rest of this entry »

How Do You Solve a Problem like “Allegro?” Revisiting Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flop

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(left to right) composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Photo courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II/Photo: The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization

By Aaron Hunt

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s third stage production, fall of 1947’s “Allegro,” opened to mixed reviews, creating controversy rather than covenant. After a scrape between the director and the actor’s union and the proposed dismissal of members of the orchestra and chorus to recoup costs became public, the show just couldn’t catch a break, and was shuttered by the summer.

Generally accepted wisdom says that the second outing measures the success of an artist or creative team, be it book, album or musical. At the same time, it seems to be human nature to lie in wait for a defeat, to display the morbid curiosity that causes freeway gapers blocks. The team of Richard Rodgers (composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist) ushered in “The Golden Age of Musicals” in the mid-1940s with the ground-breaking “Oklahoma!” which emphasized story, and used songs to continue the story’s arc, rather than riding on the back of an established Broadway star such as Ethel Merman. In addition, Agnes de Mille’s ballet sequence focused on furthering the storyline and fleshing out characterizations, rather than making pretty, cheesecake pictures; “Oklahoma!’ ran for an astronomical 2,212 performances. The duo followed this success with “Carousel.” As was the case for “Oklahoma!” the book of the musical was based on a successful play, with de Mille again supplying balletic storytelling. It ran for 890 performances, despite its dark theme and the unprecedented use of an anti-hero in a musical. It would seem that this second rousing success would have cemented an affection for Rodgers & Hammerstein, and that financially heathy, artfully progressive output would continue in perpetuity. Read the rest of this entry »

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Player of the Moment: David Schmitz, New Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux

Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux


By Brian Hieggelke

Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.

What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Plastic Revolution/The New Colony

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(front, l tor) Cassie Thompson and Sasha Smith with (back, l to r) Elise Mayfield, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Daeshawna Cook and Danny Taylor/Photo: Ryan Bourque.

Cassie Thompson and Sasha Smith with (back, l to r) Elise Mayfield, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Daeshawna Cook and Danny Taylor/Photo: Ryan Bourque.

Had “Plastic Revolution” consisted only of its first act, I would have thought it to be an unpolished musical of the ilk that often graces stages of Fringe Festivals around the country. As a full-length musical on a stage that The New Colony now inhabits as a resident company, the piece is a disappointingly rough around the edges work in need of a good workshopping.

The premise of the musical is fun enough: a newly made widow and her newly met neighbor (Sasha Smith and Cassie Thompson, respectively) launch the first-ever Tupperware party, thereby changing the lives of women and of the Tupperware corporation forever. But the performances of the cast vary in quality, as does the score. Solid performances by Smith and Thompson, and a stellar turn by Danny Taylor in drag as the neighborhood’s domineering leading housewife, sadly cannot overcome the muddy harmonies and busy orchestrations. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Rose Tattoo/Shattered Globe Theatre

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Daniela Colucci and Eileen Niccolai/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Daniela Colucci and Eileen Niccolai/Photo: Michael Brosilow


It has been said that casting is directing. The right cast will work out many a kink, but a bad choice in a key role cannot be made good by any stagecraft.

So it is with director Greg Vinkler’s well-acted, handsomely mounted version of what Tennessee Williams called his “love-play to the world,” which is marred by the choice of ensemble member Eileen Niccolai as Serafina Delle Rose, the Italian-American seamstress and widow who is the axis of the drama. It’s an error with serious but not fatal consequences, diminishing the show’s still-considerable force and altering its tone in subtle but significant ways.

As envisioned by Williams, Serafina is earthy and smoldering, her sensuality half-smothered by a life-denying combination of piety, pride and a protracted, theatrical grief. Niccolai, a performer of presence and comic ability, is simply the wrong type for the part, making it difficult to believe her claims of past sexual rapture with her husband, as well as her ultimate amorous rebirth when she meets hunky truck-driver Alvaro Mangiacavallo (played with disarming cluelessness by Nic Grelli). The rose tattoo that recurs throughout the play symbolizes the biological imperatives inscribed indelibly in human flesh–impulses that the actress does not fully convey, thus shifting the play’s balance between romance and comedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play/Theater Wit

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In case you were wondering, yes, the title of this show is referring to THAT Mr. Burns, of “The Simpsons” infamy. But this isn’t a show about him. And it isn’t a show about either the Simpsons or “The Simpsons.” It is a show about us, about people: about our relationships to the stories we tell each other and listen to, about our reasons for telling them and listening to them, and about the echoing game of telephone that is how those stories evolve and change over their time. How playwright Anne Washburn chooses to tell this story of stories is by using the raw material of “The Simpsons.” Because “The Simpsons” is really just like the human condition: it’s universal. 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: Nasty, Brutish & Short Presents/Links Hall

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“Nasty, Brutish & Short” is a wonderful title if not a particularly apt one for this DIY evening of storefront puppet theater. A more accurate title might be “Charming, Slightly-Rough-Around-the-Edges and Of Average Length.” Performing at Links Hall as a part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, the showcase ensures the “Chicago” part of the festival is well-represented, both in personnel and personality.

Curated by Taylor Bibat and Mike Oleon, the show consists of two programs on alternating nights, each featuring different short pieces.

For Program A, Sea Beast Theatre Company offers three vignettes. They are short, sea-salty nuggets of wit: a boy’s incredibly ill-fated voyage out to sea, a mermaid and a clam both soaking in whimsy and a post-apocalyptic mouse who builds itself a post-apocalyptic robot pal. However, that last show is performed in miniature with live video feed, one that was often hard to follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Accidentally Like a Martyr/A Red Orchid Theatre

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(l-r) Luce Metrius, Ensemble Member Steve Haggard, Troy West/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Luce Metrius, Steve Haggard, Troy West/Photo: Michael Brosilow


At first blush a play that is set at Christmastime may seem misplaced when presented a month later, but Grant James Varjas’ play about grief in a gay bar, though by turns funny, touching and painful, is not holiday fare. John Holt’s set, combined with Arianna Soloway’s props, turns the entirety of A Red Orchid Theatre’s Old Town space into a truly believable dive bar that was once the center of the gay community’s evening activities, but has seen better days as its clientele has aged.

The bartender, Jeffrey (Dominique Worsley), holds together the bar, its patrons, and the play itself. Worsley buzzes about and is constantly in motion, making drinks, cleaning the bar, and never for a moment being an actor in a role. He is totally immersed in the character of a man who makes drinks, listens to others, and enforces the rules of the house when necessary. Read the rest of this entry »