Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Preview: Principal Principle/Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven of Chicago

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Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

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This summer Chicago audiences are given another chance to see “Principal Principle,” a timely tale examining the potential polarizing effects of assigning corporate data-gathering systems to the educative process in an attempt to ascertain broad-based student “success,” while holding teachers responsible for the necessarily weighted outcomes. Set in a Chicago public high school, playwright Joe Zarrow, an artistic associate at Theatre Seven, has created characters that initially seem stereotypical, a useful device in telling what seems so complex a story. And yet they become beautifully fleshed, and these fulsome creations do not detract from the focused plotting of what might be expected to feel lecture-like; these are very real people, approaching a challenge they were never trained to meet, each in her own particular way, based on her skill set, while unable to fully commit to a system that considers each student a statistic rather than an individual, to be reached, positively affected and released into a world with some semblance of an academic and a social toolkit.

Four English teachers share, examine, cajole, quarrel and teach each other extremely hard lessons in their shared office. Working in a “middle of the road neighborhood” with a “ninety-five-percent African-American” student population, the women are widely varied in their approach to the onslaught of corporate Change Management that has travelled from the world of business to the public school classroom. Read the rest of this entry »

A Peek at the Process: In the Studio with Thodos’ Budding Choreographers

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Photo: Cheryl Mann

Photo: Cheryl Mann

By Sharon Hoyer

For dancers, summer is a season of creative experimentation and growth, with ample opportunities to participate in residencies and intensive classes both in the city and without. Summer is also the time when a few dance companies become incubators for new choreographic talent within their ranks. Thodos Dance Chicago was among the first in the city to offer budding choreographers in the company the opportunity to practice the craft backed by extensive resources, and to have the resulting works performed on a main stage. Melissa Thodos provides her company members audition and rehearsal space, a budget, a lighting designer and a panel of experts to provide feedback both early in the process and close to the performance. They get a taste of artistic production in the big leagues: auditioning, creating work, running rehearsals, gathering collegial feedback. I sat in on the second panel showing at the Drucker Center and got a glimpse of how seasoned dance professionals nurture and challenge the next generation of artists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Othello/The Gift Theatre

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(L to R) Kareem Bandealy  and Michael Patrick Thornton

Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton

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“O these men, these men!” sighs Desdemona (played by Brittany Burch), who is soon to be murdered by her jealous husband, Othello. She is confiding her bafflement to her friend Emilia (Darci Nalepa), who will meet the same fate at the hands of her husband, Iago. Othello’s paranoid rage and Iago’s duplicity and hatred are like the storm roiling the sea around the play’s island setting, chaotic and destructive forces that crash down hardest on the women these soldiers of empire are pledged to protect.

The Gift Theatre’s clear, strong and elegant version of “Othello” captures both the furious momentum and thematic nuances of Shakespeare’s examination of race, patriarchy and authority. Director Jonathan Berry and his skilled cast and crew have brought to the Gift’s tiny stage a production that grips us from the first moment and does not let go. Dan Stratton’s abstract and austere set, Christian Gero’s evocative musical segues and Sarah Hughey’s subtle, noir-style lighting never distract us from the dramatic essentials of language, movement and gesture—which is to say, the acting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Men Should Weep/Griffin Theatre Company

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(l to r) Ashley Neal, Christina Gorman, Roxanne Saylor and Lori Myers/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ashley Neal, Christina Gorman, Roxanne Saylor and Lori Myers/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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It’s been thirty years since Ena Lamont Stewart’s “Men Should Weep” was last produced in the USA and I’d wager a rampant run of Stateside revivals is unlikely. It’s steeped in a thick working-class Glasgow dialect. Despite its standing as one of “One Hundred Plays of the Century” per the National Theatre of London’s take on the twentieth, this far into the twenty-first the show offers nothing audiences haven’t seen. And the whole thing clocks in closer to three hours than two. But Stewart’s script provides a showcase for a fine ensemble and that’s exactly the sort of cast Griffin Theatre Company has assembled.

From the title you might think the men keep their softer emotions under wraps, and you’d be half right. While downtrodden dad John Morrison checks his sadness for most of the play, his son Alec (the other main male) is a weepy, pathetic, despicable crybaby. They’re both quick to raise their hands in anger, though. Among the many societal concerns addressed here by Lamont Stewart, the meaning of masculinity is of high importance. While the elder Morrison often struggles with that demanding breadwinning duty of traditional manhood and his view of women is typically condescending for his era, John does exhibit strength and an unshakable sense of responsibility. Alec, conversely, fails as a man and by any measure of humanity. He’s helpless, cuckolded, shiftless and alternately groveling and physically abusive to his wife Isa. If there’s any mystery, it’s how John and his saintly wife Maggie have raised such a wretch. Times are tough for men and women in this Depression-era tenement, but only Alec and his selfish, dishonest, cruel wife are utterly vile. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Gun Show/16th Street Theater

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Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Juan Francisco Villa and EM Lewis/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

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Everyone has an opinion about guns. And everyone has a “gun story.” Whether it’s tragic, a tale of survival or just something from the news, everyone has a story that deals with guns. “The Gun Show,” directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, at 16th Street Theater explores various stories of one person, playwright EM Lewis, and her complex relationship with these weapons.

In this world premiere, 16th Street Theater artistic associate Juan Francisco Villa recites Lewis’ script exactly as directed in her rules: “1. Never put down the script. 2. Don’t leave anything out. 3. Don’t stop until the end.” It’s not often that a playwright is in the audience at every show to see if these rules are being followed, but in this case, the playwright is also the show’s main character; Villa was chosen to tell her story. There are several moments where a flashlight, like the kind a police officer would use, is turned toward Lewis—to call her out on something or to ask a question. When this happens, she never speaks, only gestures, and after a short amount of time, Villa continues to recite the script. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Qualms/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Karen Aldridge,  Keith Kupferer,  Arrington, Greg Stuhr,  Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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With the way that the phrase polyamory has been tossed around over the last few years you would think that modern social psychologists invented the concept. And according to a flurry of recent articles with titles like “Why Polyamory May Be The Answer To Your Dating Woes” and “There Is Life Outside Of Monogamy, And It Actually Works Amazingly Well” there are more and more people who seem to think that they—and perhaps their significant other(s)—would benefit from such arrangements. So Bruce Norris’ new play investigating “the lifestyle,” as a character calls it, enjoying its world premiere at Steppenwolf right now, seems right on time for the sexual zeitgeist.

Except his play is not about this hot topic, it’s about swingers. And though a character tosses the word “polyamory” out there in reference to their lifestyle at one point, it seems incongruous with their actions. For the record, while both involve open relationships, polyamory is the practice of being involved in multiple, ongoing, loving relationships, while swinging is essentially monogamy plus open sex. Since the setting for this show involves four distinct couples meeting for a sex party (from which they will all return to their separate homes), it seems that they fall firmly into the latter rather than the former. But then, maybe I’m wrong, the swingers here don’t get much time to discuss the specifics of their lifestyle. They’re mostly just being ranted at by the male half of an uneasy and on-edge new couple. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Summer Intensive Performance/Deeply Rooted Dance Theater

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Photo courtesy Sandro

Photo: Sandro

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This summer marks the second year of a three-year collaboration between Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and the South Africa-based Flatfoot Dance Company, entitled the JOMBA! Initiative. Both companies have a strong focus on diversity and how art impacts social change and, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Deeply Rooted’s artistic director Kevin Iega Jeff traveled to Durban in the spring to serve as artist in residence. Over the summer Flatfoot Dance visited Chicago, engaging in creative work and discussion with Deeply Rooted about cultural exchange between the U.S. and South Africa, and what’s to be learned from the racial history of each country. Read the rest of this entry »

Poly Wants A Crackup: The Tension, and the Laughter, Explode in Steppenwolf’s “The Qualms”

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Qualms Reh_ -78

Bruce Norris and Kirsten Fitzgerald/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

When a sex comedy by a highly lauded playwright hits the Chicago stage, I get the call from Newcity to devise the sort of feature you just started reading. Seems this paper thinks all I care about is getting laughs and getting off. How obvious I must be.

Obvious ain’t a word I’d use to describe “The Qualms” by Bruce Norris, now in its world-premiere production at Steppenwolf. The show presents what is for most viewers a specifically unfamiliar social setting within what are generally very recognizable trappings. That is to say: it’s a swingers party, but after all it’s just a party. With much hilarity the play offers insight into our ridiculous human habit of trying to enjoy the company of others while maintaining an individual sense of righteousness, or at least control.

Before catching the show a few days later, I speak with Norris by phone. I start with a question firmly on both rails of my two-track mind: What’s inherently funnier, polyamory or monogamy?

“What’s inherently funnier is discomfort,” replies Norris. “Whichever one you’re more uncomfortable with is funnier. For American society at large, obviously polyamory is funnier than monogamy. Monogamy is held up as somehow sacred. And people who are in polyamorous communities are looked at as kinda ridiculous. It’s something I always wonder about: I’m anti-utopian but if we could actually not bring our fears and jealousies and possessiveness to relationships, wouldn’t that somehow be good?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Small Fire/Steep Theatre

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fire14

Photo: Lee Miller

Lacking the spark to start even the most readily extinguishable blaze, “A Small Fire” is monochromatically akin to a handful of ash. The direction from Joanie Schultz is sharp, the sound design by Thomas Dixon is precise, and the cast handle the challenges before them admirably. It’s the material that, striving for the elegiac, feels instead like an obituary in the making. The script attains the sort of mundane conversational tone it aspires to without delivering a believable sense of reality. The worsening condition of the main character is successfully communicated by the aforementioned sound design, wise lighting and blocking choices, and the fine performance of Melissa Riemer in the lead, but the dialogue is distractingly stilted for a play rooted in familial exchange.

At the play’s start, we meet Emily Bridges (Riemer) a brusque, no-nonsense owner of her own business in the traditionally male-dominated construction field. Furthering such unremarked upon exceptions to workplace stereotypes, we later learn her right-hand man Billy (a likable James Allen), isn’t straight. He also races pigeons, in a subplot that feels like an undeveloped metaphor within the underdeveloped metaphor that is Adam Bock’s one-act play. Mr. John Bridges (an effective Robert Koon), Emily’s sensitive husband who appears both more motherly to their daughter and more concerned with the basics of housework and the feelings of others, validates their unlikely union by explaining it saves him from being alone. It’s not a convincing sell to his daughter Jenny (Julia Siple) whose dislike of her cold, judgmental mother grows as her own wedding approaches. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Checking Boxes/About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

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 (l to r) Liam Camarillo, Ruben Adorno and Donny Acosta/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Liam Camarillo, Ruben Adorno and Donny Acosta/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Often when filling out applications and surveys, we are given the option of checking only one box as it pertains to our identity. Rarely do we see the selection “mark all that apply,” and if we do, the choices are severely limited. As a result, we are forced to omit fundamental parts of ourselves.

Through storytelling, spoken word and movement, “Checking Boxes,” presented by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble, explores the lives of undocumented queer youth, forced to omit fundamental parts of their identity on a daily basis. The play starts with the ensemble members all on stage, bright-eyed with ambitious dreams of being an American.

However, as the play progresses, reality slowly chips away at the delusion that is the American Dream. One young man is told, upon his arrival in the States after being rejected and beaten by his grandfather for being gay, “We all have to start somewhere.” That somewhere he is told is hiding the fact that he is both undocumented and gay. From there it’s a downward spiral for those living with this double invisibility. As one young lady in an angry rage puts it, “The American dream is a nightmare as far as I’m concerned.” Read the rest of this entry »