Photo: Johnny Knight
Despite the fact that it’s been a Chicago holiday tradition for more than a decade (first produced in 2002) and its source material is a 1946 film, every moment of American Blues Theater’s current production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” feels fresh and new, with the eager ensemble (led by original director Marty Higginbotham) throwing themselves into the story with so much wide-eyed gusto you can’t help but feel pulled in—into the story itself and into the general life-affirming message of how it is, in fact, a wonderful life.
American Blues Theater presents it as a live radio show in the 1940s and scenic designer Grant Sabin has created a cozy, idealized radio-station recording studio of a set, with snow occasionally falling outside a window and (in case you didn’t know this was a Christmas show) not one, not two, but three fully decorated Christmas trees springing up across the stage. Announcer and pianist Michael Mahler drives the show forward, both narratively and musically, while Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie creates a soundscape that adds depth and texture to the reading. Read the rest of this entry »
Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover
“You know how you go to most Christmas shows and you’re sitting there and they don’t catch you on fire?” one of the characters in “Burning Bluebeard” rhetorically asks the audience early on, before going on to explain how they ended up doing exactly the opposite during their show. Their show is “Mr. Bluebeard,” a spectacle-filled holiday pantomime performed at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in December of 1903. And the specific performance that’s being discussed is the infamously tragic matinee when the theater caught fire, killing more than 600 people, many of them children.
Originally produced two years ago by the Neo-Futurists at The Neo-Futurarium, this remounting at Theater Wit features the complete original cast, and is once again helmed by director Halena Kays. “Listen,” says Kays, “we wouldn’t come back and do this if this piece and this cast weren’t very special.” And it is indeed special. Written by Jay Torrence (who also performs in it), this semi-historical account features dance, acrobatics, clowning and a surprising amount of comedy. Read the rest of this entry »
Cross-fertilize Julie Taymor with Rankin and Bass and the result is very much what you get in this live-action version of the famous red-nosed reindeer that actually began life in Chicago as a giveaway storybook for Depression-era kids that visited Santa at Montgomery Ward.
Advertising executive Robert L. May had created the character and story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” back in 1939, but it was his brother-in-law Johnny Marks who would later write the hit song of the same title that Gene Autry would record and made a No. 1 record a decade later.
Marks would go on to write additional songs for the 1964 stop-action animated television special that forms the basis of this co-production of Emerald City Theatre and the Milwaukee-based First Stage that superbly pays homage to every little detail and nuance of that television special. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: David A. Holcombe
Religion, sex, gender roles, relationships, violence, murder, suffering, xenophobia, shame, war, self-loathing, capitalism: All the best aspects of humanity are on display here as a wide-eyed, pucker-lipped alien named Phoebe Zeitgeist (the petite and rather mesmerizing Simina Contras) sashays around the stage wearing long black gloves, an inquisitive expression and not much else.
Taking place on a set that vaguely resembles some kind of alt-world sex club in the 1970s, this helter-skelter production of enigmatic German playwright Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Blood on the Cat’s Neck” offers up multiple slices of life between an array of constantly shifting characters that our alien stand-in absorbs and repeats. (“Your mother is a bitch!” are her first words, uttered roughly halfway through the show.) These seeming non sequiturs mostly involve how generally “rotten” people can be to each other, a word used quite frequently to describe their behavior to each other. Read the rest of this entry »
Marc Kelly Smith/Photo by Mike Kadela
Marc Kelly Smith is one of the most natural, purely comfortable actors on the stage. It’s a joy to see, and it comes across immediately, this intense ease that allows him to dip into his rich palate of emotional engagement and paint a canvas of real human strife—love, regret, sustained longing and anger. He capitalizes on this loudest of emotions in a way that is reminiscent of Timothy Edward Kane’s recent full-throttled portrayal of Hector in “An Iliad.” Smith is in touch with his own brand of divine rage, but in a way that also speaks to the southeast Chicago native in him, where a grandfather, or father perhaps, would lay one too many harsh hands down on the kid. An Archie Bunker (“All in the Family”) with a stick sort of scene. This all comes through in his ninety-minute show, “Flea Market.”
Marc Kelly Smith is a Chicago icon. He is the poetry slam founder who started an international movement. The artist Tony Fitzpatrick introduced him at the Cultural Center a couple of years ago saying, “He has changed the way poetry is understood.” At the Society of Midland Authors last April, Guggenheim chairman and Chicagoan Edward Hirsch leaned into Smith and said, “You’ve created something really beautiful.” Writer Stuart Dybek turned to his novelist son, Nick Dybek, when Smith was recently performing poetry and said, “He’s the best performer.” In one of the great essays written about Smith and the poetry slam, “The Second Throat,” award-winning poet Patricia Smith wrote, “Darting about the theater, his eyes meaningfully manic, Marc Kelly Smith did what he’s always done so masterfully—he dropped like fuel on a fire that, up until then, everyone thought had been contained.” Currently, he runs the longest-running show in Chicago at the Green Mill every Sunday. Because of this, his own art is often left behind. Which is remarkable, because he’s the most talented one in the bunch. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
During last Sunday’s unseasonable tornado alert, The Hypocrites inaugurated their holiday season with a fittingly dramatic opening: the remount of their 2012 hit production of “The Mikado.”
It is the reviewer’s great, double-edged privilege to see a show in its early stages, before it has simmered down to a comfortable boil, allowing the flavors to reduce and properly complement each other. And this was the case with “The Mikado.” All the ingredients for last year’s smash hit are probably still there, but the bugs just need to be worked out so that the cast and crew can get settled into the experience.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” is first and foremost a light-opera confection, designed to delight and amuse a willing audience, and it would be an incredibly dedicated Scrooge indeed who wasn’t susceptible to such an exhilarating musical concoction. However, The Hypocrites’ self-designed overture—a guitar and string orchestra of wandering minstrels playing and singing David Byrne and other unfortunate, non-sequitur pop hits—is a special and egregious form of torture, having nothing to do with either the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, nor the ensuing adapted story of the Mikado. Read the rest of this entry »
Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover
By Mark Eleveld
Chicago is notorious for big fires, big shows and lamentation at such horrific circumstances, all of which can be found in Jay Torrence’s “Burning Bluebeard,” which retells the story of the 1903 Chicago Iroquois Theater fire. “Bluebeard” is a new, classic Chicago story now in its second run, with all of the original players, at Theater Wit. “I romanticize artists who die making their art,” says Torrence, a writer and actor in the show. “The terrible tragedy of it—and that the death of the artist is a spectacle itself, happy endings that go wrong.”
On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theater (now the site of the Oriental Theatre) in the Loop was playing the clown show “Mr. Bluebeard” (with famous Chicago actor Eddie Foy) as part of a holiday matinee. “There were nine songs before the first scene even began in the original,” says Torrence. It was a Christmas Pantomime, a hybrid of dance, song and storytelling, with clowns, mimes and an aerialist; it was also a fairy tale. And the audience packed in for the performance, with some 2,000 people filling the seats and standing area in the back. Of the 2,000, many were children. “A friend showed me a giant photograph of the Iroquois Theater. I was fascinated,” says Torrence. The afternoon theater fire killed nearly 600, many children. “I began reading about it after I saw the photo,” adds Torrence. “I read about Nellie Reed, the aerialist, who was the only performer who did not survive. She was trapped atop. Most of the information comes from court documents, from audience survivors. Nothing from the clowns.” Read the rest of this entry »
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Quite simply, this is one of the great one-man shows. The story is the greatest, oldest ever told—literally, the start of Western civilization is in “An Iliad.” The Chicago actor Timothy Edward Kane is brilliant, nothing short of spectacular. The set design is intriguing, relevant and worthy in relationship to Kane’s high energy blocking with Charles Newell’s subtle and almost subliminal direction. And the fact that this magnetic piece is told at the Court Theatre, the University of Chicago’s theater, within the same blocks as “Iliad” scholars Nick Rudall, the recently passed Herman Sinaiko and James Redfield, makes for a symmetrical commingling of events in this 100-minute retelling through a transcendent, must-see performance.
It goes something like this: the historical event of Troy vs. Greece takes place somewhere around 1250 BCE. Homer’s bardic retelling is around 750 BCE. Plato and the other classic greats use the backdrop of “The Iliad” full-on by 399 BCE. Aristotle defined it as THE epic. Depending on the translation, the poem is more than 15,000 lines, twenty-four books—Homer would recite, sing and chant the piece for the polis in a twenty-four-hour session, or three eight-hour days. Imagine a fire, the town crowds gathered, maybe a bottle of something being passed around. The oral tradition begun by the poet, to entertain and educate and philosophize. Read the rest of this entry »
The Santaland Diaries at Theater Wit
By Zach Freeman
As any denizen of the theater who’s been in this town for any amount of time knows, Chicago DOES theater. With more than 250 active theater companies and a constantly growing number of venues, if you can’t find a good show to attend on any given night, you’re just doing it wrong. And this holiday season Chicago is really throwing down the gauntlet of performance options with more than forty (yes, you read that right) holiday shows. And yes, almost all of them are Christmas-related. In fact, there are almost a dozen versions of “A Christmas Carol” alone.
But Chicago is a diverse city and our theater companies reflect that. We’re not talking about several dozen versions of the same old stuff, we’re talking about more than forty completely different takes on the holiday season. It’s a lot for any one person to take in, so we thought we’d help you determine which show (or shows) you should be seeing over the next month or so to get yourself into the appropriate holiday mood (whatever that means for you).
We can’t list them all, but here are twenty to get you started. Here we go… Read the rest of this entry »
Each new scene in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ chronicle of family dysfunction and racism is greeted with the progressively louder sound of cicadas, the insects that rise to the surface to sing, mate and die. If you’ve ever seen the return of the cicadas, it is nature at its ugliest and most overwhelming.
The same can be said for the conduct of the LaFayette family as they gather at their ancestral home to settle their deceased father’s estate. Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald in full force-of-nature mode) and her over-extended mover/shaker brother Bo (a dismissive and detached Keith Kupferer) bicker over who dropped the financial ball regarding their father’s estate. Their sleepy, airhead brother Franz (Stef Tovar) shows up with his eerily focused tree-hugger girlfriend River (Leah Karpel) for a shot at forgiveness and his share of the profits. Read the rest of this entry »