Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Preview: Paul Taylor Dance Company/Auditorium Theatre

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Mercuric Tidings firstend_No CopyRECOMMENDED

Celebrating their sixtieth anniversary, the Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to Chicago with a dazzling mix of three repertory pieces. “Black Tuesday” is a theatrical, vaudevillian act that recounts the era of the Great Depression. Drawing from social dances of the time, such as the Charleston, performers draw the audience into a world of imagination. Set against changing backdrops of New York City, dancers show the ways humans lift themselves beyond the constraints of circumstance. “Sunset” is a reflection on the human drama of war, set during World War Two. Danced to the bittersweet melody of strings mixed with loon calls, this piece carries undercurrents of both romance and tragedy. Simple, human gestures bridge the theatrical and the day-to-day. “Mercuric Tidings” is pure dance. Leaps and bounds across the stage form a blur of blue bodies. Dancers execute a stream of intricate, spry movements that cover the entire stage in this breathtaking finale. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: JACOB/Provision Theater Company

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jacob2

Just a few blocks from I Sachs Sons shoe repair on Roosevelt, Provision Theater Company coincidentally presents a contemporized take on the biblical tale of Isaac’s son Jacob and his struggle with God. It’s no coincidence that Jacob’s surname in “JACOB” is Isaacson. Though such lack of subtlety in familial appellation may seem nearly inevitable, it’s an early sign of the script’s obviousness. As explained by Rabbi Rick (Chuck Spencer) and explored by Jacob’s newly bar mitzvahed son Josh (Johnny Rabe), the act of naming gives something its meaning. This story’s meaning is about as nuanced as the naming. Amidst the ensuing strife Josh even exclaims “We’re supposed to be a family!”

We meet this Jacob, a wealthy Chicagoan, as a lifetime of deception involving his brother’s right to their father’s estate reaches a boiling point. John Mossman manages a satisfactory performance in the wholly unsympathetic lead, a cowardly liar who fears his deceit is at its end. The supporting characters merely reflect Jacob’s dishonesty and the consequences of his panic. Jacob’s attorney Mike (Rod Armentrout) accepts being scapegoated for smoking in the Isaacson’s home, but he’s having his doubts over his client’s honesty and is growing concerned about his culpability in Jacob’s legal affairs. Jacob’s wife Rachel (Lia Mortensen, also co-director) is relegated to the role of put-upon, justly suspicious wife with an unexplained faith in her husband’s innate goodness. They both admonish Jacob for arming himself in anticipation of his wronged brother’s return, while schooling the unconvincingly incompetent Jacob in rudimentary gun loading. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Vieux Carre/Raven Theatre

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VC7_Casey_OlwinRECOMMENDED

Before writing his breakout hit, “The Glass Menagerie,” in 1944, Tennessee Williams also worked on another memory play, one that he wouldn’t finish until 1977. “Vieux Carre,” considered a bookend play, plumbs the same depths of despair as “The Glass Menagerie,” without the same sweet nostalgia and glimmer of hope the other show offers. “Vieux Carre” was also produced in an age which enabled Williams to address sexuality more directly, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. A melodramatic, open-a-vein drama queen like Williams actually benefited from the restraint the times demanded of his early plays.

The Writer (a suitably vulnerable Ty Olwin) comes to New Orleans and settles in a decaying boarding house owned by Mrs. Wire (JoAnn Montemurro, mastering the necessary self-righteous fire and brimstone). He wrestles with poverty and obscurity, alongside other creative house denizens who dream of better times, like the aspiring, fragile fashion designer Jane (Eliza Stoughton) and tubercular painter Nightingale (Will Casey). The group labors to survive in a Southern Gothic world only happy to move on without them. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Man in a Case/Big Dance Theater

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5e831Man In a Case HSC 364RECOMMENDED

The aptly named Big Dance Theater constructs rich, layered performances with gusto, pulling together disparate elements into three-dimensional, moving collages. Man in a Case tells two stories by Anton Chekhov by building worlds within a world through video, movement, costuming and a strong performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Both stories are bittersweet reflections of lives unlived; in the title tale, Baryshnikov plays Byelikov, a rigid, priggish professor of classics whose entombed life is thrust into disarray by a free-spirited woman, played by Tymberly Canale, who captures his affections. Baryshnikov aptly embodies the fearful, imposing Byelikov and audiences will have the strange satisfaction of seeing the world’s most famous living dancer refuse to join a line dance at a party. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Wit/AstonRep Theatre Company

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Alexandra Bennett/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Alexandra Bennett/Photo: Emily Schwartz

RECOMMENDED

In Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” Dr. Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., an English professor whose work focuses on the Holy Sonnets of poet, satirist, lawyer and cleric John Donne, falls prey to stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer.

“Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see I have been found out.”

The play takes place in a hospital setting and Jeremiah Barr’s set design includes a back wall scribbled full of important quotations. Various medical furnishings—a bed, a pole to hold fluids, stools, wheelchairs, etc.—fly around balletically to classical music during the scene shifts, partnered by stone-faced, task-focused medical personnel. Head shaved and bedecked in the requisite hospital packaging, Dr. Bearing (Alexandra Bennett) shares her thoughts and the beginnings of feelings with the audience as she undergoes the most extreme form of chemical therapy available. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lost in Yonkers/Northlight Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

“You can’t keep cancer a secret forever, can you?”

In the emotionally and factually fat exposition scene that begins Neil Simon’s autobiographical play “Lost in Yonkers,” a father reveals to his two young sons how he and their deceased mother had attempted to shield them from unpleasant truths. Having spent everything to afford care for his dying wife, and then borrowing the rest from a loan shark before the never-seen, yet omnipresent wife/mother figure has passed, he presses his mother into caring for the boys while he takes traveling sales work that may allow him to pay his debt before pounds of flesh are weighed. But corporeal cancer isn’t the only variety that holds court in Neil Simon’s Yonkers; anger and hatred and lies eat away at both the physical and spiritual bodies of everyone in the family. And it remains to be seen if the injection into the dynamic of the brothers is sufficient catalyst to lead them to remission.

Director Devon de Mayo leads her cast through the minefields of this Pulitzer-winning piece. Simon’s wildly successful turn from comedic, commercial vehicles to self-exploration gave us a work that vomits out great personal pain, with only brief moments of the old chuckling Simon to save us before we fall too far, and this makes for exciting and hair-raising challenges for the players. Underneath the linear, episodic plot structure whirlpools of heart-disconnects swirl. The broad, sweeping character arcs that the writing demands can only be fashioned internally by artists who commit to the material. And in Northlight’s production we have that in spades. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Table Manners/The Public House Theatre

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(l to r) Kaitlin Larson, Ellen Mcmahon, Eliana Stone, Jenelle Cheyne, Grace Palmer, Amy Rose Ramelli, Karly Bergmann/Photo: Cassie Ahiers

(l to r) Kaitlin Larson, Ellen McMahon, Elianna Stone, Jenelle Cheyne, Grace Palmer, Amy Rose Ramelli, Karly Bergmann/Photo: Cassie Ahiers

Everyone’s got to eat, right? But not everyone has a healthy relationship with food. In fact, it’s estimated that over twenty million Americans are affected by an eating disorder. Women tend to be particularly impacted. While illnesses associated with eating disorders are no laughing matter, the women of “Table Manners” at The Public House Theatre certainly strive, and often achieve, a chuckle when they share their stories and struggles of “female mastication.”

After a champagne toast to their “food baby,” the ensemble of Karly Bergmann, Jenelle Cheyne, Kaitlin Larson, Ellen McMahon, Grace Palmer, Amy Rose Ramelli and Elianna Stone perform a series of skits, monologues and comedic songs to illustrate just how complex their connection to various cuisines really is. Read the rest of this entry »

Hair Share: PJ Paparelli and JR Sullivan Stage a Revitalized Musical

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Sky Seals, Ella Raymnont, Christian Libonati, Aaron Holland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Sky Seals, Ella Raymnont, Christian Libonati, Aaron Holland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Raymond Rehayem

American Theater Company’s artistic director PJ Paparelli has spearheaded a revival of “Hair” that at times just might make yours stand on end.

“If you’ve never seen ‘Hair’ you’ll have your own experience which I think is very true to the time period. If you have seen ‘Hair’—and a lot of theater people have—I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised,” says Paparelli, as we speak days before the show’s opening.

Though speaking with him on behalf of Newcity Stage, I don’t qualify as theater people in this sense. I’ve never seen “Hair.” Not even the hit 1979 film adaptation. I had always sensed revivals of the Broadway production and certainly the movie were far removed from the original intent of the show’s creators. Paparelli’s stirring take seeks to bring the audience right to the genuine heart of the oft-staged, widely beloved rock musical.

“Nothing can replace the ‘Hair’ of 1967 and ‘68. Because it’s playing against something so real: the headlines of the day. It’s as if—this sounds horrible—as if you’re doing a theater piece about 9/11 as it’s happening. It would be so powerful and nothing can change that. But what I’ve learned, in terms of theater that’s socially/politically charged, is it’s all about specificity. It’s about being as specific and real as we can, grounding it in its period and the particular issues, and the specificity of the characters and what they’re going through.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Motown the Musical/Broadway In Chicago

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Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves (center)/Photo: Joan Marcus

Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves (center)/Photo: Joan Marcus

“A song is something with a beginning, middle and an end,” Berry Gordy (Clifton Oliver) advises Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher) early on in “Motown the Musical.” It is not only the deepest, but virtually the only creative insight offered in a three-hour show that attempts the gargantuan task of telling the story of Motown record label founder Gordy and the label’s many groups and stars throughout the decades.

It is easy to understand Gordy’s frustration and his need to pen a show like this (he wrote the book of the show, based on his autobiography). One can almost picture him foaming at the mouth at the success of a show such as “Dreamgirls,” about a fictional all-female group from Detroit that has an uncanny resemblance to Gordy’s super group the Supremes, or “Jersey Boys,” based on the story and music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Geesh, there have even been jukebox musicals of songs of Abba, Billy Joel, you name it. And here’s Gordy, sitting on the song catalog of all song catalogs. How to make that work on Broadway and still tell his own story in his own way at the same time?

One way definitely not to do it is to wedge in a few bars of the biggest Motown hits whenever and however you can, relentlessly, throughout the entire evening as “Motown the Musical” does. How disrespectful to those wonderful records, to hear them rendered in such truncated fashion and put out like a Detroit automobile assembly line, one right after the other, merely to solicit applause for the audience’s ability to recognize them go by for a few moments. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hair/American Theater Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Just like they sing it in the title song, “Hair” is indeed “fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, … bangled, tangled and spaghettied.” But for all of its loose-jointed, self-indulgent raggedness, it remains the classic theatrical expression of its cultural moment. And even a crewcut Teabagger would find it hard not to dig American Theater Company’s vibrant revival of Gerome Ragni’s, James Rado’s and Galt MacDermot’s “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” Superbly cast and lovingly directed by PJ Paparelli (assisted by JR Sullivan), with expert musical guidance by Austin Cook, this production harkens back to the show’s roots as a street-theater-inspired experiment, conceived by two working actors and staged in a cozy East Village space far from the lights of Broadway.

Forty-six years after its premiere, the musical still packs a wallop, and if the characters on stage seem impossible to imagine today, it’s not because things have gotten better. For all their goofy extravagance, their swings from profound to infantile, the patched and fringed young romantics who populate “Hair”’s hippie tribe exude a spirited, evergreen charm. Read the rest of this entry »