Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Holiday Spectacular/Kiss Kiss Cabaret

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Kiss Kiss Cabaret1


Let’s begin by admitting that burlesque-type entertainment is not to everyone’s taste. Then let’s revisit the sage advice about trying everything twice to see if you like it, since you might have gotten it wrong the first time. Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s “Holiday Spectacular” revives the spirit of the genre with revelations both dramaturgical and corporeal. A chorus of stripping lovelies perform routines both time-honored and unexpected, a naughty-but-nice pas de deux-couple deliver the shivers that thrill, and a gentleman-juggler proves that vaudeville is still with us. All are lovingly and leer-fully corralled by a clown MC, whipping-and-warming up the audience. Here we have comedy, vaudeville, lots o’ burlesque, and there’s a little magic thrown in for good measure; all the ingredients for a sexy, fun-filled romp. Burlesque has roots going back to the 1840s, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. But enough of the academics. Bring on the girls!

The lady (and I use that term with cheerful looseness) MC Tamale sports long red hair and a whitened face adorned with two red hearts. The night I attended, she knew the names of many of the guests (especially those celebrating birthdays), and showcased a gift for being able to turn a heckle into a funny exchange, and then keep it going as a subplot throughout the show. Tamale has clear talents and makes descriptions of her youth fun, but learning the cardinal Rule of Three—you must push a bit, a story, or a catch-phrase to the third delivery to get the full laugh, and then never mention it again—will make her an unstoppable comic force. Read the rest of this entry »

Americans on the Stage: Dance Theatre of Harlem Returns to Chicago

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By Sharon Hoyer

The Dance Theatre of Harlem was established in 1969, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Arthur Mitchell, the first black principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, founded the company and ballet school in his home neighborhood, believing that access to and education in the arts enriches and empowers communities. From then on, DTH has led the way for inclusiveness in classical dance, demonstrating the richness and expressive possibilities of an art form that had been (and many still perceive to be—see captivating 2011 documentary “First Position”) almost exclusively white and Eurocentric. It’s been sixteen years since the Dance Theatre of Harlem performed in Chicago—financial hardship forced DTH to suspend the touring company in the interest of preserving their school and public programming, a hiatus planned for six months that stretched into eight years. Happily, the touring company was revived in 2012 and comes to the Auditorium Theatre as part of its 125th-anniversary season. I spoke with artistic director Virginia Johnson about the upcoming program. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Guide to Being Single/Underscore Theatre Company

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Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras

Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras


Wouldn’t it be great if there were a book that provided all the dos and don’ts to loving the single life? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a book about dating that everyone could read so there would be no harm to anyone’s emotions because everyone knows the rules and plays by them? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Maybe. Unless, those darn things called “feelings” got in the way. “The Guide to Being Single,” a new musical by Kaitlin Gilgenbach (book) and Alexi Kovin (music and lyrics), aims to ask and answer those exact questions.

The show is set in Wrigleyville, one of Chicago’s most bar-lined neighborhoods. Six friends Jackie (Sarah Danielle Hoch), Heather (Miki Byrne), Zack (Jonas Davidow), Derek (Jomar Ferreras), Liza (Kelsey Burd) and Stacy (Juanita Andersen) have all discovered a new book promising that, by following the simple rules given, singles can enjoy “screwing without getting screwed.” Rounding out the cast is Chad Michael Innis who plays a bartender, cab driver and bar goer, among other roles. Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Intimate Years: Redtwist Theatre Looks to Season Eleven

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Redtwist Theatre's storefront location

Redtwist Theatre’s storefront location

By Aaron Hunt

With thirty-six Joseph Jefferson nominations and nine wins since Redtwist Theatre’s first show in the Edgewater neighborhood opened in September 2003, it might seem that the company didn’t spend much Cinderella-time by the fireplace. But none of Chicago’s storefront theaters skate through more than ten years without some bumps along the way and this season Redtwist celebrates the anniversary of their residency at 1044 West Bryn Mawr with an eleventh season entitled “Rising From the Ashes.”

I spoke with Redtwist’s artistic director Michael Colucci and original member Johnny Garcia about the company’s journey and the alchemy that has given the company its status and resiliency. Colucci was transplanted from New Jersey to Chicago in 1981. “It was because of a corporate job change,” he says. “The company shipped my boss [here]…and he said, why don’t you come with me? There’s an opening in Chicago.” He smiles. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Colucci arrived at the beginning of Chicago’s storefront theater boom. Body Politic, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens and other financially strapped, artistically rich organizations re-envisioned street-level real estate no longer fiscally viable for traditional business into storytelling spaces. Rent was cheap, and small but ardent collectives of newly graduated artists bursting out of Chicago’s universities remodeled these “homes” for theatrical expression.  Colucci found himself swept into this tidal wave. He studied acting, left his corporate job when his acting career gained momentum, then added coaching and stage direction to his portfolio. His studio became the Actors Workshop Theatre, and then morphed into Redtwist. The company moved into Edgewater in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Holmes and Watson/City Lit Theater

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(l to r) Adam Bitterman and James Sparling/Photo: Tom McGrath

Adam Bitterman and James Sparling/Photo: Tom McGrath


At the heart of City Lit’s “Holmes and Watson” is the co-dependent relationship between the two titular characters. Holmes, to put it bluntly, can be a bit pedantic and his obsessive attention to detail can be downright grating. It is little wonder that he forever remains a bachelor. The fawning Watson, however, does not seem to mind and is content to live vicariously through the master detective’s daring exploits, hanging on his every word. Holmes clearly relishes lecturing to his doctor friend and may at times be even a little jealous of the attention given to Mrs. Watson. It is almost as if Holmes senses that he does not fully exist without Watson.

Under Terry McCabe’s direction, the two partners weave their way in two acts through two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem”). McCabe (who also originally adapted this work for City Lit in 2006) demonstrates a solid understanding of both the characters and the plot twists, presenting both with clarity and flair. In the first act, the buffoonish King of Bohemia (played amusingly by Adam Bitterman, who is also quite convincing as Watson) enlists Holmes in order to snag an embarrassing photo held by his former lover, Irene (the very charismatic Adrienne Matzen). The smug Holmes (played very well by British actor James Sparling) sets up a very elaborate plan to trick Irene into showing him where the photo is hidden. Irene, however, has a few tricks of her own and in the end a smitten Sherlock is left to wonder what might have been. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mud, River, Stone/Eclipse Theatre Company

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(l to r) AnJi White, Matt Thinnes, Zach Bloomfield, RobertHardaway

AnJi White, Matt Thinnes, Zach Bloomfield, Robert Hardaway

At the husband’s urging, a comfortably affluent couple (Robert Hardaway and AnJi White) decide to rough it a bit for their holiday, and travel off the beaten path to strive for more than just a good time in their time off.

Oh, the twist? You want to know the twist. Identity is the twist: the racial identity of the couple, and the identity of their destination. The couple’s African-American, and the destination is African. Where exactly in Africa we never learn, nor does the couple, at least not while we’re watching. It’s someplace on the precipice of danger and deprivation, that much becomes clear. The Americans’ ignorance on the basic count of their whereabouts is just the most glaring sign that their identification as even hyphenated Africans is up for debate. Indeed, the question of just who among the cast of characters—all holed up in a forgotten luxury hotel waiting out the rain—can rightfully claim to belong in this unnamed locale is central to Lynn Nottage’s script. Other questions of identity flutter around this central plot point. Is the husband (a writer on rap for white readers, further hammering home the topicality) a success in his wife’s eyes, or even his own eyes? Is the colonial old white male (Zach Bloomfield)—descendent of the hotel’s original owner—a horrible parasite or a rightful resident of the well-stocked bar? Is the laughable barefoot Belgium (Matt Thinnes) who’s forsaken European culture at least partially justified in calling a black man brother? Is the bellboy former solider (Anthony Conway) who holds the rest hostage beyond hope? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Women At War/Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

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C. Williams, B.A. Green, K.V. McNeil, R. Altay, D. Davis, P. Ramirez, M. Cross

In a set of extremely brief vignettes, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble relates the experiences of American women in the armed forces through Megan Carney’s new play “Women At War.”  Based on the real experiences of women who have gone overseas and fought on behalf of our country, the play takes a rapid-fire and disjointed look at what it is to be a female soldier or sailor during the Iraq war era.

The play begins with a scene between a woman (played by Mary Cross) about to head out on her second deployment and her mother-in-law (Susan Gaspar) who is trying to understand the choices that her son’s wife is making (i.e. leaving her child behind to go to war). Gaspar’s character is an effective surrogate for those of us in the audience. We seek understanding.

As we follow a group of women on their military journey from boot camp to the Iraqi theatre to the post-military life and return back home, we witness a number of situations that each could be expanded into a play of its own.  Due to this broad overview, the show gives no part of the experience of being a woman in the military more than a cursory treatment. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Camelot/Drury Lane Theatre

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Jonathan Weir and Ken Clark/Photo: Brett Beiner

Jonathan Weir and Ken Clark/Photo: Brett Beiner

If you are a fan of the golden-age of musicals, if you haven’t been able to give up your LP of the original cast recording of “Camelot,” with Julie Andrews’ soaring soprano seeming to possess no register changes and making every word clear as a bell while spinning silvery phrases, Robert Goulet’s burnished baritone ripping your heart out as the knight who couldn’t leave, and Richard Burton, speak-singing his way through the pivotal role with a purr, saving his full-throated magnificence for hurt and fear, and if you are willing to accept the challenges of over-long choral numbers telling stories of events happening off stage, and an awareness that some beloved music had to be cut after the show opened for the audience’s (and the player’s) bladders not to burst in exchange for simple joys, then director Alan Souza’s production at the Drury Lane Theatre will make you weep in the wrong way, and you should stay home, put on that old LP, and let Julie save you. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Submission/Pride Films and Plays

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Ginneh Thomas, Nicholas Bailey, Edward Fraim and Adam Pasen/Photo: Rayme Silverberg

Ginneh Thomas, Nicholas Bailey, Edward Fraim and Adam Pasen/Photo: Rayme Silverberg


The question posited by Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission” is one of ownership. Who owns a story? And, whose tale is it to tell?

Danny (played by Nicholas Bailey) has written a play. More specifically he has written a play about the hardships of growing up as a young black man, raised by a single mother in a bad part of town. Apparently, it is also a brilliant play. The only problem is that Danny is a middle-class white gay man. He has nothing in common with his characters, and no idea how to relate to anyone who does.

Danny hires an actress named Emilie (played by Ginneh Thomas) to portray the embodiment of his pen name, so that when his play is accepted into the prestigious Humana Festival, she can represent him in the rehearsal hall without his own identity being revealed. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Out of Disorder/Greenhouse Theater

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Photo: Charlie Grigas


More than anything, I think I appreciated “Out of Disorder”’s sequencing. The show is actually a pairing of two solo shows: “Hunger Pains” by Christopher L. Moore and “I’m Different, Not Dumb” by Ali Clayton. Both are directed by Mary Rose O’Connor with an intelligent and economical hand. Moore’s show follows his struggles with eating disorders as a young man and is a fairly straight-up seriocomic autobiography. Clayton’s, on the other hand, draws from her own experience growing up with a rainbow of learning disabilities but it also incorporates a number of sketch characters whose relationship to Clayton’s struggles are thematic yet kind of tangential. (This is not a bad thing really, as the characters are all pretty funny—and the final one is downright hilarious.) “Hunger Pains” goes right for the jugular, while “I’m Different, Not Dumb” is concerned primarily with the funny bone. When I say I appreciate the sequencing, what I mean is that it works quite well to have “Hunger Pains” come in and rough the audience up a bit and then, for “I’m Different, Not Dumb,” to walk up and hand them a lollipop. O’Connor clearly understands the journey that an audience wants to be taking, and, for that, I am very appreciative. Read the rest of this entry »