Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Moby Dick/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

Christopher Donahue, Raymond Fox, Jamie Abelson (background)

RECOMMENDED

“Moby Dick” is the leviathan of American literature, diving deeper than any other work into the mysteries of human nature and destiny. Shakespearean in scope, biblical in flavor, Herman Melville’s nineteenth-century novel most memorably gave us the one-legged, lightning-scarred figure of Captain Ahab, whose mad quest for the white whale that “dismasted” him turns the voyage of the Pequod into a Jim Jones-style death cult.

Director-adapter David Catlin, fresh from his spectacular “Lookingglass Alice,” shows he is as comfortable with the sublime as the whimsical, crafting a gripping version of the novel that captures both its epic scale and sharp characterizations. In association with The Actors Gymnasium, Catlin and company have created a kinetic, circus-like theater space that engulfs the audience and makes Melville’s watery world come alive. Set, lighting and sound designers Courtney O’Neill, William C. Kirkham and Rick Sims deserve an ovation for their depiction of the sea’s moods, from tropical languor to typhoons that mirror Ahab’s inner turmoil. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Who & The What/Victory Gardens Theater

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(L to R) Susaan Jamshidi, Shane Kenyon/Photo: Michael Courier

Susaan Jamshidi, Shane Kenyon/Photo: Michael Courier

When characters clash in Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & The What,” they do so under a number of different banners. The play, receiving its Midwest premiere at Victory Gardens, has conflicts informed by religion, generation, tradition, gender, family and love. It is a multi-faceted portrait of the ways in which we can be at war with each other. However, for vast stretches of its 110-minute run time, the play is also at war with itself.

“The Who & The What” is half comedy and half drama—just like life, really. But this play doesn’t so much blur the lines between the two as it does lurch awkwardly between them. Akhtar is an accomplished writer of plays, novels and films, but here it can feel like he’s a beginning driver learning how to work a clutch with the action often stalling out mid-shift. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Work of Art/Chicago Dramatists

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Vic Kuligoski and Jennifer Coombs/Photo by  John Sisson Photography

Vic Kuligoski and Jennifer Coombs/Photo: John Sisson

There could be many reasons to entitle a play “A Work of Art,” but by doing so the author is either telling you that the play is about a piece of art, whether real or figurative, or the author has the hubris to declare their own work to be something significant and affecting. As there isn’t a piece of physical art seen or even mentioned within the text of Elaine Romero’s new opus, it is easy to infer that the playwright has made some gross assumptions about her piece.

Perhaps Romero intends the character of Sabrina (Jennifer Coombs) to be seen as tragically damaged in some beautiful way that would make her a living work of art. That would justify the title. However, what we get is a tale of a woman who has difficulty in dealing with the death of her brother, told in a disjointed manner that is difficult to follow and populated by individuals who are difficult to empathize with. This isn’t compelling art. It is what happens when the stream-of-consciousness path of ideation involved in playwriting is put down on paper verbatim. It is a mess, and not a beautiful one. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Minotaur/Forget Me Not Theatre Company

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Evan Henderson/Photo: Emilia Zuckerman

Evan Henderson/Photo: Emilia Zuckerman

Early in their studies, young actors often run into what are called A/B Scenes or contentless scenes. These are back-and-forth bits of dialogue that leave everything so undefined that the words can be taken in myriad ways due to the lack of actual intent or substance in the script itself. Much of Teagan Walsh-Davis’ new play “Minotaur” comes off as one of these contentless scenes.

Director Claire Shavzin has attempted to infuse meaning into the terse and obtuse dialogue, and she occasionally succeeds. But in the end her efforts can only make so much of the material. Though it takes almost the entire evening to discern any plot at all, it can all easily be summed up as this: two unstable young poets fall in love and essentially destroy themselves through their relationship. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Storm/Moon Fool and Walkabout Theater Company

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McCambridge Dowd­-Whipple

McCambridge Dowd-Whipple (front) and ensemble

RECOMMENDED

At first, given the emphasis on magic and the dirgey, chant-oriented music, one could be forgiven for thinking “Storm,” a collaboration between international collective Moon Fool and Chicago’s Walkabout Theater Company, might be a sneak peak of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s forthcoming adaptation of “The Tempest,” as envisioned by Teller (of Penn & Teller) to the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Yet Walkabout and Moon Fool take more liberties with Shakespeare’s text than I imagine even CST is comfortable with. As it stands, purists may want to avoid this one. Everyone else should come right in.

In this production, the choreography is really the main event, though it can be a double-edged sword depending on your proclivity for the highly interpretive. On one hand, the invigorating movement regularly deepens and abstracts the play’s themes of loneliness and the illusion of agency. On the other, like the titular storm itself, it tends to wash away this production’s foundation. As a work in progress, there is no reason to believe that creator/director Anna-Helena McLean won’t temper her own admirable impulses toward acrobatics in order to better facilitate her fascinating adaptation. As it stands, this iteration is a sophisticated yet feral dance performance that contains illusions to Shakespeare. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: City of Angels/Marriott Theatre

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City of Angels

Summer Naomi Smart/Photo: Amy Boyle

RECOMMENDED

I thought a show where the colorful people stayed on one side of the stage while the colorless people stayed on the other, plot lines fizzled, and the leading players were a screenwriter and his alter ego but all the best tunes were given to three-and-a-half women was up against too many challenges. I didn’t see how it would have a life after Broadway. How to stage it? How to salve the wounded book? Eleven 1990 Tony nominations and six wins argued.

Marriott’s new production gave me comeuppance. As staged in-the-round by director Nick Bowling, a world of reality and another of cinema exist so closely and interchangeably that scene changes fly by, characters with counterparts in another world can be believably portrayed by one actor with the switch of a wig or a tablecloth, and these worlds can collide with élan. Thomas M. Ryan’s set, Jesse Klug’s lighting and Nancy Missimi’s costumes are beautifully to blame. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan/Broadway In Chicago

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OnYourFeet

Photo: Matthew Murphy

RECOMMENDED

Seven Grammys. Over 100 million albums sold worldwide. A true-life story that so many can relate to in its triumph and tragedy. That’s the life of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and their incredible rise to fame, brilliantly captured in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” now in its pre-Broadway world premiere here in Chicago.

From stunning costumes (designed by Emilio Sosa—who also did the costumes for “Motown: The Musical”), gorgeous sets, a phenomenal cast, a solid book and, of course, some really great music, this show is absolutely worthy of a Broadway stage.

The show begins as a show like this should—making the audience feel like they are at a concert. A full band is live on stage, colorful lights fill the room and, if you’re sitting close to the stage, you feel the beat of the drums in your chest as the hit “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” begins to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Body + Blood/The Gift Theatre

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L-R: Stephen Spencer, Nicholas Harazin, Lynda Newton, Cyd Blakewell and Gabriel Franken/Photo: Claire Demos

Stephen Spencer, Nicholas Harazin, Lynda Newton, Cyd Blakewell and Gabriel Franken/Photo: Claire Demos

RECOMMENDED

Priests are common characters in American storytelling but they are rarely ever protagonists. They often have a part to play, it’s just never in their own story. So it is refreshingly bracing when William Nedved’s “Body + Blood” gives audiences something rarely seen on the modern stage (or screen or Kindle, for that matter): a story about a man aspiring to become a priest that a) takes his faith in God seriously, b) has nothing to do with child abuse and c) allows this man to be a complete and total screw-up.

Directed by Marti Lyons in a world-premiere production at The Gift Theatre, “Body + Blood” begins with the first of many poor, or at least poorly timed, decisions made by Dan (Nicholas Harazin) in pursuit of priesthood. On a warm summer evening on the porch of the Chicago apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Leah (Cyd Blakewell), Dan informs her that he plans on joining the priesthood. This, of course, also means that the two of them are done. Since she was expecting a marriage proposal, Leah doesn’t take the news all that well. And when Dan’s big sister Monica (Lynda Newton) arrives with her lovable lug of a husband Mick (Stephen Spencer) she laughs him right out of the building. Too her, this is simply another example of Dan running away from commitment. Even Dan’s spiritual advisor Father Alex (Gabriel Franken) starts to have some serious questions as to what is really motivating this decision. Read the rest of this entry »

Mid-Life and Lost: Bringing Christopher Durang’s Tony Winner “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to The Goodman

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Mary Beth Fisher and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo:  Liz Lauren

Mary Beth Fisher and Janet Ulrich Brooks/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Elle Metz

Last year saw a surge of a certain type of film, the mid-life crisis, coming-home movie (see: “The Judge,” “This is Where I Leave You,” or “Are You Here” for examples). The plot, while differing slightly from film to film, follows a similar path: a financially stable but emotionally stunted middle-aged adult is called home (usually for a parent’s funeral) where they’re faced with old romances, disgruntled siblings and a crisis of conscience. Inevitably, their time at home shows them the error of their ways and realigns their priorities.

Starting this month, this story—only fresher and funnier—is coming to the stage at the Goodman Theatre in the form of Christopher Durang’s Tony award-winning play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” The play’s director, Steve Scott, is a prolific Chicago-based director, whose other productions at the Goodman include “Blind Date,” “Dinner with Friends,” “Wit” and the 2011 and 2012 editions of “A Christmas Carol.” To him, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” reflects his own increasingly confused perspective on the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Goldfish/Route 66 Theatre Company

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Goldfish-6

Alex Stage and Francis Guinan/Photo: Rob Zalas

RECOMMENDED

While many adolescents take their parents’ values as a challenge, rarely do they grasp what’s at stake for them. A child’s success can completely reverse years of fatalistic cynicism in a parent. For at least one character in Route 66’s “Goldfish,” the stakes are nothing less than their entire life.

Taking its name from a series of illuminating animal metaphors, “Goldfish” is a play about two single parents (Francis Guinan and Shannon Cochran) and their children (Alex Stage and Tyler Meredith) who fall in love. It is a play that is both astutely funny and agonizingly beautiful. While it implies the issue of balancing protective impulses, it focuses specifically on children’s desire to reprogram their parents’ hardwired linear thinking and the trappings therein.

As the home-wrecker Leo whose pride emerges through layers of pain, Guinan lives up to his well-earned reputation as one of Chicago’s great treasures. His ability to make living poetry is unparalleled and in playwright John Kolvenbach he has found a perfect match. His final monologue, which concludes with him encouraging his own son to “resist” him, left many in the audience—this writer included—in tears. Read the rest of this entry »

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