Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Unfolding Their Own Myth: Definition Theatre Company Stakes Out Fresh Theatrical Space

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Kelson McAuliffe, Tyrone Phillips, Julian Parker, Jessica Dean Turner, Mercedes White, Aurora Adachi-Winter, Neel McNeill/Photo: Joe Mazza

Kelson McAuliffe, Tyrone Phillips, Julian Parker, Jessica Dean Turner, Mercedes White, Aurora Adachi-Winter, Neel McNeill/Photo: Joe Mazza

By Loy Webb

There is a contagious energy that fills the room upon meeting Definition Theatre Company (DTC). One look at their bright hopeful eyes, erect self-confident posture, and fiery passion for theater, and their ebullient spirits latch on to you. Gnawing at your inner soul, inspiring you to dream bigger and aim higher.

Most chalk this up to naive youthful enthusiasm, cautioning them to be more realistic in their endeavors and mindful of the traditional trajectory others before them have taken. However while these young people are big dreamers, they are not naive. They just understand the power of “unfolding their own myth,” as the poet Rumi states.

Founded by six University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign BFA alumni who are rising artists in their own right—Tyrone Phillips (artistic director), Julian Parker (executive director), Kelson McAuliffe (development director), Jessica Dean Turner (social media director), Aurora Adachi-Winter (casting director), Mercedes White (marketing director) and a later added seventh company member Neel McNeill (Managing Director)—the company was born out of their frustration with the lack of opportunities for multicultural artists in the American theater. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mnemonic by Complicite/Red Tap Theatre

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Pavi, Proczko, David Cady Jr., Gage Wallace, Jake Szczepaniak, Robert Oakes (above) & Chris Carr/Photo: Austin D. Oie

Pavi, Proczko, David Cady Jr., Gage Wallace, Jake Szczepaniak, Robert Oakes (above) & Chris Carr/Photo: Austin D. Oie

They say the clothes make the man, and so I think can a space make the theater company. For years, Red Tape Theatre was safely ensconced in a cavernous and decrepit old gymnasium attached to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lakeview. The place oozed a sort of American gothic charm that more than made up for its relative shortcomings. And the sheer size of it compared to the glorified closets that many other storefront companies have to work with allowed Red Tape the freedom to pursue expansive works that others simply could not. I think back to their 2012 production of Caryl Churchill’s “Skriker,” with its ever-shifting labyrinth and remember being wowed that a storefront theater could so successfully realize a piece of such expansive ambition.

Sadly those days are now past. Red Tape’s tenancy at St Peter’s has come to an end and they are now itinerant. I had hopes when going to see their production of “Mnemonic by Complicite” at the DCA that perhaps the chance to create a new space might prove freeing, that it would unlock new creative avenues heretofore unexplored. But it was not to be. I’m not entirely chalking things up to the new digs, but what I saw was not a company that looked free. It was one that looked lost. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Fall Concert Series/Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre

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Rach jump1 2RECOMMENDED

Cerqua Rivera brings together their full ensemble of collaborating musicians and dancers to the Ruth Page Center for their fall concert. Composer Joe Cerqua and choreographer Wilfredo Rivera founded the company fifteen years ago to fuse music, visual art and dance in an expression of the rich diversity and complexity of contemporary life; their semi-annual concerts—the only times the full complement of artists are together on stage—are the best way to see their vision in action. The fall program contains four new works, including a tribute from Rivera to his musical parents, set to the Honduran music of his childhood. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Khecari + Happydog/Links Hall

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Esther-4

RECOMMENDED

Happydog performance company was formed when three artists—Chicago-based designer Annie Novotny, Portland-based choreographer Muffie Connelly and New York dancer Leslie Cuyjet—embarked on a tri-coastal creative project. They founded Happydog Gallery in Wicker Park as incubator space and began a process of creative exchange from afar, crafting performance works that evolve over months of collaboration, unbounded by genre or medium. Their newest work, “LADY PARTS,” is part two in a trilogy about human reproduction from a feminine perspective. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Coward/Stage Left Theatre

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Brian Plocharcyzk/Photo: Johnny Knight

Brian Plocharczyk/Photo: Johnny Knight

RECOMMENDED

“An armed society is a polite society,” goes the old NRA slogan. Perhaps, but it’s also an insane society, as demonstrated by Nick Jones’ play “The Coward,” receiving its Midwestern premiere courtesy of Stage Left.

The courage-challenged individual in question is young Lucidus Culling, played with appropriate fussiness by Brian Plocharczyk. He’s the son of a howlingly mad British nobleman (Stephen Walker), who has already lost two sons on the field of honor and apparently won’t be happy until he has lost his third and last. Lucidus, a cross between Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Disney’s Ferdinand the flower-sniffing pacifist bull, is torn between the pressure to prove himself a true aristocrat—i.e., a polished, casual killer—and his passion for ranking butterflies by beauty. And then there’s his infatuation for the social butterfly Isabelle Dupree, who has won his heart and handkerchief but, as the play opens, values neither. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Game’s Afoot/Drury Lane Theatre

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Tempe Thomas, Derek Hasenstab/Photo: Brett Beiner

Tempe Thomas, Derek Hasenstab/Photo: Brett Beiner

RECOMMENDED

“She was ruthless. She was evil. She was a theater critic, for God’s sake!”

Delivered in the baritonal vocal stylings of Chicago’s own national treasure Alene Robertson, this pronouncement brought the press opening of Drury Lane’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot” to a howling halt. One of America’s foremost farceurs, Ludwig continues to churn out theatrical charmers with his carefully researched comedies, chock full of good-old-fashioned slapstick and one-liners. Winner of “Best Play” at the 2012 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Awards, “Afoot” does not disappoint.

Given the winning whipped-cream treatment by artistic director William Osetek, this production whizzes along, immersed in the art décor era of real-life protagonist William Gillette (Derek Hasenstab) by the expert design of scenic director Kevin Depinet, Greg Hofmann’s lighting, Maggie Hofmann’s fabulous costumes, and Ray Nardelli’s sound design. If you haven’t toured the Connecticut castle built by the Broadway star of his own play, “Sherlock Holmes,” you will walk away feeling as if you’ve had a taste. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Whaleship Essex/Shattered Globe Theatre

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Photo: Emily Schwartz

Photo: Emily Schwartz

Which graduate of our public school system hasn’t read the CliffsNotes for Melville’s “Moby Dick,” along with Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “Beowulf?” With “The Whaleship Essex,” sailor/playwright Joe Forbrich makes his case for theatricalization of the story that inspired Melville’s epic tale of man-against-whale, with its page-after-page descriptions of waves and eschewing of substantial sub-plotting, steering it into modern-day parable by examination of man’s zealous quest for oil, with its attendant consequences.

Director Lou Contey takes on the formidable challenge of telling a story with fifteen actors running about the stage all at once, jostling and climbing and sputtering songs. If one of the greatest challenges to hit a directorial desk is the staging of “crowd scenes,” Contey’s steady hand on the rudder saves us from potential seasickness. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Reasons to Be Happy/Profiles Theatre

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Eric Burgher, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese

Eric Burgher, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese

I missed “reasons to be pretty” when Profiles Theatre debuted it in Chicago back in 2011. What many consider to be playwright Neil LaBute’s best work, the show presents the fallout from a man’s offhand comment that his girlfriend’s face is “plain.” Like many of LaBute’s other shows, it examined the emotional trench warfare that constitutes the battle of the sexes in modern day, while shedding some of the more gimmicky premises of his earlier plays like “Fat Pig” and “The Shape of Things.” Unlike the show’s characters, the play embraces maturity. “reasons to be pretty” was a hit for Profiles, who now count LaBute as a company member. So it isn’t surprising that Profiles is now premiering LaBute’s 2013 sequel, “Reasons to Be Happy.”

However, having seen only this new production, I’m now sad that I didn’t get to see the original. And it’s not because I couldn’t understand what was going on; the script does a fine job of standing on its own. It’s because the Profiles production is strangely at odds with the script, and I say strangely considering LaBute’s status of a company member and their impressive track record with his work. It’s the kind of tone-deaf treatment that makes you think these people had never met. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Whale Trail with Joe Forbrich: Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Whaleship Essex”

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Hugh Iglarsh

Before the black gold of petroleum became the driving force of business and empire, it was whale blubber that lit the lamps and lubricated both the machinery and the ambitions of antebellum America. And a generation before Captain Ahab and the Pequod sailed into our collective imagination, there was the very real Captain Pollard and the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaler battered and sunk by an enraged and seemingly vengeful ninety-foot monster of the deep.

The story of hunter turned helpless prey, and of the sailors’ three-month voyage across the open sea in whaleboats after the Essex went down, with only eight of the twenty crew members surviving the ordeal, is coming to the Chicago stage, courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre.

Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the greatest aquatic menace is rotting alewives, Joe Forbrich’s “The Whaleship Essex” will transport the audience back to 1820s New England. It was a time when peace-loving, luxury-spurning Nantucket Quakers roamed from equator to pole in search of sperm whales to slaughter and render into precious oil, spermaceti and ambergris. Driven by a seemingly “un-Friendly” combination of avarice, machismo and bloodlust, they created efficient floating abattoirs, turning the planet’s most magnificent creatures into ingredients for candles and axle grease. It was just business, albeit a risky, widow-making one, and the Nantucketers – described by Herman Melville as “Quakers with a vengeance” – took pride in their ability to feed an insatiable market the commodity it craved. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On the Town/Marriott Theatre

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On the Town Slide 2
RECOMMENDED

Given that “West Side Story” is often considered the greatest musical ever written, odd that its predecessor “On the Town,” the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is done so infrequently.

Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in “West Side Story” was still a long way off in “On the Town,” which began life as the ballet “Fancy Free.” That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.

Bernstein’s score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own style, the music often coming off as Gershwin meets Shostakovich. When MGM made the movie version, they gutted most of Bernstein’s score as being too “operatic” in favor of new tunes by MGM house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film, a Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people are often expecting the movie tunes in the stage production. Read the rest of this entry »