Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Let Me Down Easy/American Theater Company

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Usman Ally/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Usman Ally/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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What does it mean to be “let down easy?” When put in the context of being “let down easy” in terms of healthcare, does that idea change? One might interpret the saying to mean when one comes to the end of life there is a peaceful calm. Another might say that when one is ill, it means to have gentleness, a certain kindness in the healing process. Playwright Anna Deavere Smith explores the interpretations of that phrase through interviews she conducted with more than 300 subjects in the Chicago premiere of “Let Me Down Easy,” directed by Bonnie Metzgar at American Theater Company.

Out of the 300 interviews, twenty are part of this production, which also marks the first time “Let Me Down Easy” has been performed by anyone other than Deavere Smith. American Theater Company ensemble member Usman Ally takes on the mighty task of portraying all twenty parts in this one-person show, reciting verbatim what people across the country—from Lance Armstrong to Joel Siegel and people from all walks of life in between—have to say about American medical care. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mercy Strain/American Theater Company

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Michael Milligan/Photo: Michal Daniel

Michael Milligan/Photo: Michal Daniel

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As I walked into the theater and was greeted by the set for “Mercy Strain” I had to smile to myself. The show has been advertised as a hit at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and as it happens I have just recently returned from a visit to the 2014 festival. While there, my friends and I joked that every show we saw had a few things in common, namely the fact that they all included very few actual things. The slots in Edinburgh are so tight that any extraneous props or set pieces have to be cut, lest the time you spend setting up lead to the lights being switched off mid-climax because you’ve run five minutes over. The perfect Fringe show, we would say, probably involves nothing more than a table, a chair and one actor just acting his butt off. Lo and behold, the set for “Mercy Strain” turns out to consist of one table and one chair. All that was needed was one actor acting his butt off and the set would be complete. Happily, by the end of the evening, actor Michael Milligan’s butt is nowhere to be found.

Following its success at the Fringe, “Mercy Strain” has toured across the country. It is being presented in Chicago by American Theater Company in rep with Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy” (starring Usman Ally) as “The Healthcare Plays.” If you get a chance to see both, I highly recommend it, as each show features a single actor embodying the dilemmas inherent in our country’s “What’s Mine is Mine and I’ll Sue for What’s Yours” healthcare system, but in dramatically different ways. Actor Usman Ally embodies nineteen different characters in Deavere Smith’s emotions-impaling docudrama, while Milligan’s piece is an entirely fictional work focused on a single man who unfortunately becomes The United States Healthcare System’s own personal Job. Different as they are in scope, each play will leave you with a fresh, gaping hole where your heart used to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: King Lear/Chicago Shakespeare

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Ross Lehman and Larry Yando/Photo: Liz Lauren.

Ross Lehman and Larry Yando/Photo: Liz Lauren.

The image one usually comes away with from a production of “King Lear” is that of the aged king, stripped down to his skivvies and raging against the elements. But one comes away from Chicago Shakespeare’s new production with an entirely different image altogether: that of Chicago stalwart Larry Yando carrying the show upon his back. Yando’s Lear is a thrillingly complex creation and his performance is not unlike watching a crumbling mansion be methodically stripped down for scrap until there’s nothing left but a muddy hole in the ground. In fact, if one could likewise strip away the rest of Barbara Gaines’ production, it would probably be for the best.

The only original idea that Gaines brings to the table can be summarized in two words: Frank Sinatra. That’s right, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, that cavalier chronicler of mid-century decadence and white male ennui, has been chosen to illuminate the themes at hand. Or maybe this production of “Lear” was all just a Trojan Horse for The Sultan of Swoon, for audiences to sit back and reconsider just how dang melancholic a lot of his tunes were. I can’t really tell you, which is part of the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Native Son/Court and American Blues Theater

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Jerod Haynes and Eric Lynch/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jerod Haynes and Eric Lynch/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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In a “Poem About My Rights” June Jordan pens these words, “Wrong is not my name/ My name is my own my own my own/and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this/ but I can tell you that from now on my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life.”  Jordan’s words, though written long after Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son,” are the unofficial biography for his protagonist’s life. For so long Wright’s protagonist has been told that he is wrong, akin to an abominable black rat not worthy of life. Yet like in Jordan’s poem, when his spiritual awakening manifests, his fear dissipates and he realizes he has the power to name himself. It’s beautiful indeed, yet the road is long and rocky.

The play “Native Son,” adapted by Nambi E. Kelley, opens up with Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) and the highly inebriated daughter of his new boss Mary (Nora Fiffer).  Unable to stand, Bigger helps Mary to her room. While helping her, Mary begins to flirt with Bigger, who is initially reluctant to respond because she is white and he is black. Still, he eventually gives in to his desires, but their moment is interrupted by Mary’s blind mother Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman). Bigger’s attempt to quiet Mary by placing a pillow over her mouth ultimately leads to her death.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rest/Victory Gardens Theater

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Matt Farabee, McKenzie Chinn, MaryAnn Thebus, Amanda Drinkall, Steve Key

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In the Midwest premiere of “Rest” by 2014 MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Samuel D. Hunter, a character expresses his disdain for jigsaw puzzles. He professes he enjoyed them until he realized the banality of the entire process. A company takes an already known picture, creates the puzzle and leaves him with the task of putting the pieces together.  As a result of this realization, he abandons the puzzles and resorts to watching television as his pastime.

While I agree with the banality of the jigsaw puzzle, I believe it is analogous to our lives. We are somehow put here by a force higher than ourselves (the company), with a plan already set out (the picture), yet our responsibility for the remainder of our lives is to assemble the pieces together (the jigsaw puzzle). The characters in Hunter’s play realize that this responsibility, no matter how banal, is no easy undertaking.

In a retirement home on the night of a record-breaking blizzard in northern Idaho, ninety-one-year-old resident Gerald (William J. Norris) has gone missing. He is presumed to have wandered off as a result of his twelve-year battle with dementia. The staff, which consist of a temporary cook named Ken (Matt Farabee), two longtime employees—Ginny (McKenzie Chinn) and Faye (Amanda Drinkall)—and director of the home Jeremy (Steve Key) gather around to support Gerald’s wife Etta (MaryAnn Thebus). After failed attempts to search for Gerald, Tom (Ernest Perry Jr.), a resident whom the staff has mistaken as deaf for the last several years, reveals the truth about Gerald’s disappearance. This revelation forces each of them to grapple with their own morality and the meaning of their existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Downpour/Route 66 Theatre Company

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DOWNPOUR 2

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Before Caitlin Parrish began to write for television’s “Emily Owens, M.D.” and “Under the Dome,” she was an award-winning playwright. With director Erica Weiss at the helm, Parrish’s “A Twist of Water” enjoyed success in Chicago and off-Broadway. The team reunites for “The Downpour,” given a vibrant production here through an oversized Chicago picture window. If Parrish’s work in television has kept her busy for the last two years, and if “The Downpour” has been two years in the making, I am left to ponder what effect this splitting of focus might have had on this play. The first act left me beautifully shaken, the second act beautifully dissatisfied.

The familial dysfunction on display in “Downpour” is as unrelenting as a tidal wave, and as mysterious layer after a homicidal lie is revealed, I was all gooseflesh. Like any good thriller, the list of potential victims mirrors that of possible suspects, presumed reality brushing up against unwieldy truths. What is the inherent danger in the older sister’s pregnancy? Why does the younger sister write children’s books where the child-protagonist is always locked away? Why does the husband never question the large scar on his wife’s head? Can a happy whoremonger change? What does the incessant theme of water portend? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Stories in Motion/Joffrey Ballet

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image001 (1)RECOMMENDED

To whet audience appetites for the fall season, the Joffrey presents a special one-weekend amuse of short narrative ballets. Two pieces are from the Joffrey rep: Antony Tudor’s 1936 “Lilac Garden,” a moonlit tale of quiet longing set in the Edwardian era, and George Balanchine’s take on the parable of the Prodigal Son, set to the music of Prokofiev. The company will also premiere “RAkU,” by San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, and inspired by the true story of a Buddhist monk who burned down the Kyoto Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Macbeth/Chicago Opera Theater

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macbeth

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Shakespeare’s play of the same name came to be called “The Bard’s Opera” because producers would schedule the widely popular piece when revenues were low, giving the players reason to believe that their talents might shortly need to find a new place of expression, striking such fear into their hearts that it was considered bad luck to speak the name of the title character. “Bloch’s Opera” succeeds in a fearlessly visceral way by leaning heavily on the text that shored up the finances of Elizabethan theaters, superstition be as damned as Macbeth himself. Chicago Opera Theater’s production tells the ancient tale in graphic symbolism while using the sort of multimedia gadgetry that allows both a generation steeped in operatic traditions and a newer audience that must be encouraged if the art form is to continue to be riveted.

Given in a series of seven tableaux, with COT’s slightly cut production listed as having a run time of 110 minutes without intermission, Ernest Bloch’s only operatic contribution proves his zeal for the thematic intricacies and rich orchestral scoring of Wagner. Internal melody soars from the pit in reactive counterpoint to the supple vocal lines, both delivered up in instrumental surprises. Bloch’s pulsing orchestral and choral compositions might have prepared us for this singular masterpiece had it followed a lifetime’s work. But the piece was written early in Bloch’s career, premiering in 1910 when he was only thirty years of age. The fact that it is seldom performed, quietly crouching in the shadow of Verdi’s “Green’s Opera,” is a wrong that COT artistic director Andreas Mitisek, conductor Francesco Milioto and Apollo Chorus director Stephen Alltop illuminate. The combined effect of Mitisek’s sexy direction, Milioto’s musical-gumshoe’s instinct for locating and bringing to justice every ounce of romanticism, and Alltop’s unbroken track record for training his chorus to express such varieties of style and color that it rivals any other in the city on this under-appreciated work should cause us all to shake our heads. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Death Tax/Lookingglass

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J. Nicole Brooks, Deanna Dunagan/Photo: Liz Lauren

J. Nicole Brooks, Deanna Dunagan/Photo: Liz Lauren

Paragraph One. Playwright Lucas Hnath’s having a Chicago moment, with his “Isaac’s Eye” in simultaneous production at Writers Theatre this fall. “Death Tax” (Can you imagine the groan emanating from the marketing department when that title was announced?) is a tight, seventy-five minute exploration of healthcare, morality and family ties getting its Lookingglass treatment behind the capable direction of Heidi Stillman. In typical Lookingglass style, the set exists mostly in the imagination: a simple black square painted on the floor with the audience seated in a square as well, on three of four sides. But the sense of being “boxed in” is palpable throughout this play that wears its structure on its sleeve, with lead J. Nicole Brooks announcing each of five scenes in place of conventional transition. Paragraph Two. The only character in every scene, Brooks delivers a fiery, riveting performance as the nurse Tina tending to a dying old woman Maxine (Deanna Dunagan striking a perfect note of manipulative vulnerability) who’s convinced that her only child, her grown daughter, is secretly paying Tina to hasten her demise, for tax purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Ballet X/Dance Center of Columbia College

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photo courtesy Alexander Iziliaev

Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

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Chicago meets another world-class contemporary company this fall in a mixed-rep program from Philly’s delightful, knockout Ballet X. Like other great companies making fresh, resonant new work anchored in ballet technique and contemporary aesthetics, Ballet X has an alchemic combination of virtuosic dancers and artistic direction with a bell-clear, unique voice. The company was founded by co-directors Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, who bring four works—unseen in Chicago—to the Dance Center of Columbia College. Read the rest of this entry »