Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Cicada/Route 66 Theatre Company

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Amy Matheny and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Joe Mazza

Amy Matheny and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Joe Mazza

Route 66 Theatre Company introduced itself to the Chicago and national scene with total transparency, both in name and in mission statement, undertaking to introduce, develop, produce and “export new works for the stage.” Using the highway of its name, the company has travelled with its productions to Los Angeles and New York. 2014 makes its first full season of new work.

Beautifully cast, with fine production values, the players and the production team throw themselves wildly into the “Cicada” hopscotch championship and never step on a crack. The nine-member ensemble immerse themselves in the material, inviting the audience into the story, while supporting each other seamlessly. As Lily, Amy Matheny runs to the dark place required of her, and lives there unstintingly. Aaron Kirby plays Lily’s son Ace, jumping through every flaming circus hoop required of him. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design coddles the audience, and then holds them by the hand and runs with them through every twisting transition. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: f(H2T): From Here to There/NON:op

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RECOMMENDED

Where are you now? Where are you going? What lies between those spaces? “From Here to There” invites us into a literal and metaphoric journey into these questions. The collaborative project, installed in Bridgeport Art Center, is the creation of more than twenty artists as part of Chicago-based arts collective, NON:op.

Canopies, sculptures and other structural installations guide audience members or rather, participants, on a literal path through the warehouse space where they encounter music, dance, video, and the visual arts among other artistic forms. Participants may choose which elements to focus on, the position of their viewing and how long they stay in a space. Like the proverbial blind men describing different parts of an elephant, each persona will walk away with a different experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Growing into Being/Brave and Barefoot Dance Troupe

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RECOMMENDED 

What gives a life meaning? This may be the question, lying at the root of the human heart. Brave and Barefoot Dance Troupe prompts us to ask this question of ourselves in their debut multi-media performance, “Growing into Being,” directed by Cassandra Dara-Abrams. The performance draws inspiration from the rhythms of nature as well as the rhythms of our own personal journeys.

In particular, this work draws inspiration from the life of WWII concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s seminal, autobiographical work, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recounts his quest to discover meaning in the most horrific of circumstances. “An Ode to Viktor Frankl,” is performed to the recitation of “Ringing the Bell from the Highest Mountain Temple”–a poem honoring Frankl’s life work. This is a call to action. Dancers breathe life into the words of the poem, embodying energy and passion with strong, explosive movement. “We Are Growing,” a full company piece, explores the stages of the journey both as individuals and as a whole. Contemporary movement highlights the unique strengths of each dancer. The last piece, “Grandmother Moon,” speaks to the experiences of women of various ages and stages of life. Set to an original a cappella song and live drumming, the dancers’ motions become the physical embodiment of music. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dorian/The House Theatre of Chicago

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RECOMMENDED

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Flashing lights, club music, alcoholic beverages, a coat rack, wristbands and people mingling seem more like traits of a party than a play. However, this is what audience members walk into at House Theatre’s production of “Dorian.” Needless to say, once the show officially begins, the party just keeps rolling and the audience is taken on an avant-garde theatrical journey.

“Dorian,” is a new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” from playwrights (and House Theatre company members) Ben Lobpries and Tommy Rapley (Rapley also serves as director and choreographer). Like the novel, the play tells the story of a man who desperately wants to hold onto his youth at any cost and magically receives his wish.

Though the show’s story can be quite dark, there is a great mix of comedy and drama in the script, which is fantastically brought to life by Patrick Andrews (as Basil, a tortured artist and love interest of Dorian), Kelley Abell (as Sybil, a performance artist and another of Dorian’s love interests), Manny Buckley (art critic extraordinaire), Ally Carey (Sybil’s daughter, Isabelle), Lauren Pizzi (a socialite in the art world), Alex Weisman (as Alan, a man infatuated with Dorian) and Cole Simon (as the titular Dorian). Dance and movement are just as important as the dialogue and comedic punch lines are hit just as cleverly as Dorian’s blades cut skin and echo his destruction. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mud Blue Sky/A Red Orchid Theatre

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Mierka Girten, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Natalie West, Matt Farabee/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Mierka Girten, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Natalie West, Matt Farabee/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Images from the early days of mass airline travel, the “Mad Men” years, depict the life of a flight attendant (then called stewardesses) as one of high-flying youth and beauty, of casual romance and carefree partying. But the passing years brought on anti-discrimination laws that prevented the airlines from their early practices of hiring and firing based on age and looks and so, today, many of our flight attendants resemble their employers: aging and tired.

It is this world, that of today’s flight attendants facing early retirement, absentee parenting and a generally groundless life, that playwright Marisa Wegrzyn takes on with her witty and wistful new play, “Mud Blue Sky,” being given its Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre. Beth (played with a resigned demeanor that permeates her physical presence by Natalie West) checks into an airport hotel near O’Hare and seems to want nothing to do with the partying planned by the slightly younger Sam (played with sparkling energy by Mierka Girten). Turns out she has her own plan that involves buying pot to soothe her aching back from a high-school-age pusher who takes a break from his prom night to sell her a quarter ounce (Matt Farabee, holding up against this den of cougars who see him variously as an object of lust and longing and mothering). Before long, they’re all in Beth’s room, joined by Angie (the effervescent Kirsten Fitzgerald), a former co-worker who’s been jettisoned from her job for weight issues, and is adrift in the suburbs of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

30 Plays, 60 Minutes, 25 Years: A Quarter Century of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”

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By Hugh Iglarsh

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

“What are the hallmarks of American culture that are also typical of ADD? The fast pace. The sound bite. The bottom line. Short takes, quick cuts … High stimulation. Restlessness … Speed. Present-centered, no future, no past.”
—Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, “Driven to Distraction”

At this point—after twenty-five unbroken years of performance in Chicago, of two generations of sell-out crowds, of untold thousands of two-minute sketches and hundreds of actor-writers, of spinoffs and Edinburgh Festivals and Hear ye-Hear ye civic proclamations—it is fair to say Greg Allen’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” is more than an institution; it is a movement.

Allen and his cohorts have made their “neo-futurism” a hot commodity, spawning affiliated groups everywhere from San Francisco to Montreal, and developing into a perpetual motion theater machine, whose unique rituals of admission and spectatorship turn play-going into a kind of collaborative performance art. Neo-futurism is arguably the biggest, most durable entrant on the local scene since Second City began improvising fifty-some years ago. And like Second City, “Too Much Light” (hereafter TML) has created a precise and endlessly repeatable formula for achieving a tightly engineered spontaneity. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

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Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff, Deirdre O’Connell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Late in the second act of playwright Mona Mansour’s marvelous “The Way West,” a pizza-delivery guy gets into a tussle over declined credit cards with the play’s protagonists and exclaims, “At least I’m solvent!” It’s one of those wonderfully terrible moments in the theater, when the truth slices like a lawnmower gone amok, taking out not only the subjects of the insult as well as its deliverer, who’s just admitted that he’s thirty-three years old and has lost his “real” job, but also us, the audience, as we realize how trivial our American life has become, where we measure our self-worth and sense of accomplishment on whether we pay our credit card bills on time, on whether we’re solvent.

Few things create more stress in marriages, in families, in life than money and the lack thereof, yet our theater so rarely addresses commonplace financial matters, preferring instead to kick around the more easily dramatic, if far less universal, arcs of corruption, fraud and theft. This simultaneous freshness and familiarity of subject make this world-premiere production especially compelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The President/Oracle Theatre

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RECOMMENDED

joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-or-3173022665-OHungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar loved this country enough to begin citizenship proceedings. But he had no love for capitalist deal-making; his sharp criticism of American business arrangements and human manipulation shines a light on questionable ethics through fast-paced humor.

The detailed Mr. Norrison (John Arthur Lewis) is set to join his family on a well-deserved mountain vacation. But his naïve charge, Lydia (Michelle M. Oliver), the daughter of Norrison’s wealthy and influential customer, announces that she is married and having a baby with Tony (Travis Delgado), a militant, communist cabdriver. In a flurry of wheeling and dealing, Norrison proceeds to transform everyman Tony into a titled captain of industry.

The ensemble brings the right energy to their broadly drawn characters; Lewis is smoothly corporate in his brokering and decision-making and Oliver endows her character with the sensual daffiness Lydia requires. The suitably ardent Delgado negotiates the transition between radical firebrand to titan of industry with confidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pinkolandia/16th Street Theater

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Maritza Cervantes and Miguel Nunez/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Maritza Cervantes and Miguel Nunez/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

RECOMMENDED

Artistic director Ann Filmer (who directs  “Pinkolandia”) and the 16th Street Theater stay in stride in this multilayered, culturally significant, fictional retelling of a refugee family from Chile assimilating into 1982 Wisconsin. At the heart of the story are twelve-year-old Beny (Maritza Cervantes) and her eight-year-old sister Gaby (Hannah Gomez). Beny has been in the states since she was three, when her parents Tomas (Carlos Diaz) and Camila Rodriguez (Stephanie Diaz) were forced to leave Chile after a military coup d’etat in 1973. There are several revealing story lines: an “uncle” (Miguel Nunez) comes back to the family, reigniting the revolutionary spirit; the children are having problems assimilating into the Wisconsin neighborhood; and the youngest daughter is repeatedly ignored to the point of a total withdrawal. In all, this is a play about estrangement and a family trying to forgive themselves and their countrymen in their past, while trying to cobble together a better future. But does this desire for a better life come at too much sacrifice and guilt? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Visceral Dance Chicago/Harris Theater

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UntitledRECOMMENDED

There’s a new high-profile contemporary dance company in town. Nick Pupillo’s Visceral Dance Chicago, born of and named after the studio he opened on the Northwest Side, made its debut last fall at the Harris Theater—an ambitious start for an ambitious artistic director. Over the winter the company acquired some strong repertory and their first spring program features works by familiar names. Rising star choreographer Monica Cervantes, the tiny powerhouse who formerly danced with Luna Negra Dance Theater, brings “Changes,” an abstract piece woven through with images of everyday life. Read the rest of this entry »