Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Preview: Summer Intensive Performance/Deeply Rooted Dance Theater

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Photo courtesy Sandro

Photo: Sandro


This summer marks the second year of a three-year collaboration between Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and the South Africa-based Flatfoot Dance Company, entitled the JOMBA! Initiative. Both companies have a strong focus on diversity and how art impacts social change and, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Deeply Rooted’s artistic director Kevin Iega Jeff traveled to Durban in the spring to serve as artist in residence. Over the summer Flatfoot Dance visited Chicago, engaging in creative work and discussion with Deeply Rooted about cultural exchange between the U.S. and South Africa, and what’s to be learned from the racial history of each country. Read the rest of this entry »

Poly Wants A Crackup: The Tension, and the Laughter, Explode in Steppenwolf’s “The Qualms”

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Qualms Reh_ -78

Bruce Norris and Kirsten Fitzgerald/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

When a sex comedy by a highly lauded playwright hits the Chicago stage, I get the call from Newcity to devise the sort of feature you just started reading. Seems this paper thinks all I care about is getting laughs and getting off. How obvious I must be.

Obvious ain’t a word I’d use to describe “The Qualms” by Bruce Norris, now in its world-premiere production at Steppenwolf. The show presents what is for most viewers a specifically unfamiliar social setting within what are generally very recognizable trappings. That is to say: it’s a swingers party, but after all it’s just a party. With much hilarity the play offers insight into our ridiculous human habit of trying to enjoy the company of others while maintaining an individual sense of righteousness, or at least control.

Before catching the show a few days later, I speak with Norris by phone. I start with a question firmly on both rails of my two-track mind: What’s inherently funnier, polyamory or monogamy?

“What’s inherently funnier is discomfort,” replies Norris. “Whichever one you’re more uncomfortable with is funnier. For American society at large, obviously polyamory is funnier than monogamy. Monogamy is held up as somehow sacred. And people who are in polyamorous communities are looked at as kinda ridiculous. It’s something I always wonder about: I’m anti-utopian but if we could actually not bring our fears and jealousies and possessiveness to relationships, wouldn’t that somehow be good?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Small Fire/Steep Theatre

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Photo: Lee Miller

Lacking the spark to start even the most readily extinguishable blaze, “A Small Fire” is monochromatically akin to a handful of ash. The direction from Joanie Schultz is sharp, the sound design by Thomas Dixon is precise, and the cast handle the challenges before them admirably. It’s the material that, striving for the elegiac, feels instead like an obituary in the making. The script attains the sort of mundane conversational tone it aspires to without delivering a believable sense of reality. The worsening condition of the main character is successfully communicated by the aforementioned sound design, wise lighting and blocking choices, and the fine performance of Melissa Riemer in the lead, but the dialogue is distractingly stilted for a play rooted in familial exchange.

At the play’s start, we meet Emily Bridges (Riemer) a brusque, no-nonsense owner of her own business in the traditionally male-dominated construction field. Furthering such unremarked upon exceptions to workplace stereotypes, we later learn her right-hand man Billy (a likable James Allen), isn’t straight. He also races pigeons, in a subplot that feels like an undeveloped metaphor within the underdeveloped metaphor that is Adam Bock’s one-act play. Mr. John Bridges (an effective Robert Koon), Emily’s sensitive husband who appears both more motherly to their daughter and more concerned with the basics of housework and the feelings of others, validates their unlikely union by explaining it saves him from being alone. It’s not a convincing sell to his daughter Jenny (Julia Siple) whose dislike of her cold, judgmental mother grows as her own wedding approaches. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Checking Boxes/About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

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 (l to r) Liam Camarillo, Ruben Adorno and Donny Acosta/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Liam Camarillo, Ruben Adorno and Donny Acosta/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Often when filling out applications and surveys, we are given the option of checking only one box as it pertains to our identity. Rarely do we see the selection “mark all that apply,” and if we do, the choices are severely limited. As a result, we are forced to omit fundamental parts of ourselves.

Through storytelling, spoken word and movement, “Checking Boxes,” presented by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble, explores the lives of undocumented queer youth, forced to omit fundamental parts of their identity on a daily basis. The play starts with the ensemble members all on stage, bright-eyed with ambitious dreams of being an American.

However, as the play progresses, reality slowly chips away at the delusion that is the American Dream. One young man is told, upon his arrival in the States after being rejected and beaten by his grandfather for being gay, “We all have to start somewhere.” That somewhere he is told is hiding the fact that he is both undocumented and gay. From there it’s a downward spiral for those living with this double invisibility. As one young lady in an angry rage puts it, “The American dream is a nightmare as far as I’m concerned.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brigadoon/Goodman Theatre

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Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren


A few days ago, a friend and I were joking about the plot of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” when he quipped, “What a silly story,” then, quickly realizing what he was saying in the same thought, he added “unlike most musicals.” Exactly. The tale of a mystical town in the Scottish Highlands that only appears for one day every hundred years is hardly an outlier in a world of singing and dancing cats or workingmen who build big ships not for money but for metaphor. But it is quaint, with its midcentury notions of utopianism grounded in a rustic, rural time capsule. And it is strange, its peculiarities foregrounded in director Rachel Rockwell’s stunning Goodman debut. But its strangeness holds its charm for me, with the town of “Brigadoon” as a stand-in for a particular vision of heaven, and the incursion of us Americans resembling the Fall From Grace in the Garden of Eden. (Other things I found swirling around in my brain in some of the slower parts, which this imperfect work has,  included the even-sillier “Gilligan’s Island,” with its comic—as opposed to tragic here—explorations of the challenges of mating in a small-sample population without mobility, and the musical “Riverdance,” which I admittedly only know through the incessant television commercials that once ran. Rockwell’s lords of the dance, though, are Scottish, not Irish, with tartan kilts, bagpipes and Highland dancing, which she blends deftly with ballet, leading to some mesmerizing choreography, most notably in the festive “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Partners/LiveWire Chicago Theatre

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(left to right)  Brian Crawford, Will Von Vogt, Blake Russell and Lauren Pizzi/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Brian Crawford, Will Von Vogt, Blake Russell and Lauren Pizzi/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Waiting for LiveWire Chicago’s production of “Partners” to begin, my date and I talked about how much we would like an apartment that resembled Mike Mroch’s elegantly shambling set. After the show had ended, we discussed how uncomfortably our lives already resembled those of the show’s characters. For we too are over-educated, over-sensitive and over-indebted young people scraping that glass ceiling of early adulthood. Given what a mess these characters are, the parallels were unsettling.

“Partners” might strike one as a rather bland title for a play (and I’m not saying that it isn’t) but that blandness belies playwright Dorothy Fortenberry’s interest in examining every type of relationship that the word could imply. There is the marriage between Paul (Brian E. Crawford) and Clare (Lauren Pizzi). Then there is the business partnership (a food truck, of course) between Clare and her best friend Ezra (Will Von Vogt). And then there’s Ezra’s relationship with his boyfriend Brady (Blake Russell), a pairing that now comes with the right to marry and all of marriage’s attendant anxieties. As the play begins, the characters are all at a stable, if tenuous, equilibrium. But then Clare suddenly comes into a large sum of money. And when money is introduced into any partnership, things get complicated. Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming Pools and Movie Stars: Gregg Opelka Makes “The Beverly Hillbillies” Sing

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Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart/

Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart

By Aaron Hunt

“I’d really fallen in love with Cole Porter, and his music, and just became obsessed with hearing all these obscure recordings. I saw a musical revue which was called ‘The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter.’ And I remember seeing that, and after I came out of that I wanted to write a musical. That was the light-switch moment for me. This was what I wanted to do.”

Born on the South Side, Gregg Opelka’s family emigrated to Northern Glenview. The third of nine children, all of whom were given piano lessons (Gregg’s seemed to stick), he attended Loyola Academy. His required studies of Greek and Latin would stand him in good stead in his later career.  “I was a British poetry freak. Other kids were outside playing ball, and I was reading Keats and Shelley. I attended Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, then got a scholarship to the University of Michigan in Classics. Preparing to be a crusty old college professor, stuck in academia. But I always played the piano as I kid and I was drawn. I missed it. I was getting more and more seduced by the musical theater.” Opelka started sneaking off to the practice rooms in the student union, to keep up his Haydn and Mozart. Opting out after earning his MA, Opelka headed for Boston, where he focused seriously on his pianist chops, before returning to his native Chicago in the mid-1980s.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: That’s Weird Grandma/Barrel of Monkeys

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
Photo: Michelle Alba

Photo: Michelle Alba


Children of all ages braved a rainstorm Monday night to hear songs about jelly, see a video game where a taco takes on a squash and visit a world where a person lives in a sewer with a monkey as a butler. Who else could come up with this stuff but kids? Now in its seventeenth season, Barrel of Monkeys hilariously bring the stories of third, fourth and fifth graders from Chicago Public Schools to life in “That’s Weird, Grandma” at the Neo-Futurist Theater.

Since 1997, Barrel of Monkeys has lived out their slogan, “Kids write it. We do it. World Saved!” by working with kids in fifty-seven Chicago Public Schools to create and perform more than 300 student-written stories annually. “That’s Weird, Grandma” is a revue that features some of the funniest, weirdest and most creative writing youngsters are able to craft and share.

Barrel of Monkeys’ artistic director, Molly Brennan, cleverly directs an outstanding ensemble cast that features company members Kassi Bleifuss, Lizzie Bracken, Linsey Falls, Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, Emjoy Gavino, Nick Hart, Tai Palmgren, Tim Soszko, Curtis Williams, Donnell Williams and Rachel Wilson. The set is minimal, but quite a few colorful costumes and props help keep kids’ attention focused on the stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/Drury Lane Theatre

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(L to R) Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner

Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner


There’s a certain magic to academic competitions. Debate teams and Academic Decathlon members understand the focus and determination it takes to stand in front of judges and face what can be one of an adolescent’s biggest fears: losing. Unlike the comfort one can experience in these team activities, there is a competition where the pressure is all on a sole individual and he or she alone determines the outcome of the competition, where remembering that “I” comes before “E” except after “C” (in most cases) can be the difference between winning a juice box or going home with a trophy. This, of course, is the basis for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre.

The cast of spellers is hilariously brought to life by Eli Branson (William Barfée, who spells with his magic foot), Carolyn Braver (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a girl who wants to win so America will love her and her two dads will be proud), Zack Colonna (Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own clothes and wears a cape made out of a shower curtain), Jordan DeLeon (Chip Tolentino, last year’s Spelling Bee champ), Landree Flemming (Olive Ostrovski, a girl who believes her dictionary is her best friend), and Stephenie Soohyun Park (Marcy Park, a perfectionist who wants to prove she can be okay with being imperfect).  The wonderful cast is completed by Johnathan Butler-Duplessis (Mitch Mahoney, the Bee’s “comfort counselor), Joe Dempsey (Douglas Panch, the vice principal of the local junior high school) and Frances Limoncelli (Rona Lisa Peretti, a local real estate agent who won the 3rd annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Chicago’s Watershed: A 156 Mile Choreography/Clinard Dance

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Amidst concrete and apartment complexes, skyscrapers and trains, our interconnectedness with nature may not be immediately apparent. Wendy Clinard’s “Watershed” is fuel for the fire of remembering that we are all still part of a living, breathing whole. The piece traces the history of the Chicago River: everything from the train tracks that grew alongside, to the shapes and movement of the water itself, to its microscopic bacterial contents. Read the rest of this entry »