Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Beast on the Moon/Raven Theatre

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Matt Browning, Sophia Menendian/photo: Dean La Prairie

Matt Browning, Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie

RECOMMENDED

Richard Kalinoski’s play “Beast on the Moon” has won awards all over the world, and in Raven Theatre’s current production directed by Michael Menendian, one can easily see why. The story of two young survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 is set in Milwaukee and illuminates the difficulties of coming to America, starting a new life, and trying to both live up to and in spite of the shadows of one’s past.

The performance begins with a video montage that serves to educate the audience about the Armenian people and the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The piece, put together by Kelly Rickert, very effectively sets the tone and gives the audience the kind of background information needed to truly become immersed in the play itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Anna in the Afterlife/Polarity Ensemble Theatre

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(l-r) Sarah Eddy, Sheila Willis and Ellyn Nugent/Photo: Jackie Jasperson

Sarah Eddy, Sheila Willis and Ellyn Nugent/Photo: Jackie Jasperson

The publicity materials and preview articles written about Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s world-premiere production of “Anna in the Afterlife” admit that the play is a therapy exercise for the show’s creator. Playwright Richard Engling lost his dear friend to suicide, and then wrote a script that confronts his feelings about that death, his own mortality, and the search for the meaning of life.

Engling plays a character named Matthew (who can be taken as his surrogate within the realm of the story). Matthew is in a coma, but his spirit is in the afterlife, or at least the entrance lobby to the afterlife. There he meets a number of his deceased friends, and reviews and relives a series of scattered memories from his life. The first person he meets is his friend Anna (played in this instance by Ellyn Nugent). Anna has been split into three versions of herself in the afterlife: a small child (Sarah Eddy) who suffered from abuse; the woman that Matthew knew in life (Sheila Willis); and, finally, Nugent’s version, who has continued to age and change since death. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Coffin in Egypt/Chicago Opera Theater

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Frederica von Stade/Photo: Liz Loren

RECOMMENDED

The mythical line between opera and musical theater further fades with Chicago Opera Theater’s mounting of “A Coffin in Egypt.” Is it really an opera, as advertised? The composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Leonard Foglia, librettist and director, (who based his libretto on American dramatist Horton Foote’s play) have enjoyed storied Broadway careers. The scenic and costume designer Riccardo Hernandez, and lighting designer Brian Nason are Broadway veterans.

The performers address each other face-to-face, turning upstage, rather than cheating out toward the audience. The portrayals are natural, not exaggerated in body language or counterfeit emotion. “Coffin” contains spoken dialogue. This allows the singing to flow out of narrative that can no longer be expressed with mere words. Isn’t this the type of writing that made “Oklahoma” a success? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well/Stage Left Theatre

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Jeremy Trager and Melanie Derleth/Photo: Johnny Knight


RECOMMENDED

If “All’s Well That Ends Well” is, as some critics insist, a “problem comedy,” then director Drew Martin, by setting the play in the Mafia-land of television’s popular series, “The Sopranos,” has smeared, if not completely erased, the comedy’s challenges by darkening the dramatics and upping the merriment, giving Stage Left Theatre a most happy surprise.

In this contemporary setting, it is easier to believe that such a Shakespearian heroine as Helena would be not only allowed, but assisted by familial figures, to publicly pursue, marry and then trick into marital consummation the recalcitrant, reluctant, callow youth of her choosing. Melanie Derleth makes the momentous task of playing Helena seem like a walk in the park; every moment is real and sure, and for the little time she is offstage, the world is a gloomier place. Luke Daigle throws himself fervently at the playing of the most despicable leading youth in the canon; Daigle plays Bertram’s reformation from the heart. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lady Windermere’s Fan/Dead Writers Theatre Collective

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(l to r) Megan Delay and Joanna Riopelle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Megan Delay and Joanna Riopelle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Oscar Wilde is generally acknowledged as one of the most skillful wits to have written in the English language. His plays are filled with wicked jibes at the expense of British society of his day, and of human nature overall. While it isn’t as famous as “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” one of Wilde’s earlier works, contains much of the banter and barbed humor that makes for a pleasantly comedic evening.

And that’s exactly what one gets in this new production from Dead Writers Theatre Collective. Director Jim Schneider helms a show that is beautifully staged upon an impressive set by designer Moon Jung Kim. The whole evening is a feast for the eyes. Patti Roeder’s costumes are glorious to behold. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Three Sisters/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Lindsey Gavel, Joel Ewing, Mary Williamson and Hilary Williams/Photo: Evan Hanover

Lindsey Gavel, Joel Ewing, Mary Williamson and Hilary Williams/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

In college, the old adage goes: sleep, work, social life; choose two. For Anton Chekhov, a similarly triangular logic exists: happiness, knowledge, safety; choose two and constantly long for the third. Or better yet: choose all three, believe they are within your grasp, discover how wrong you were, become disillusioned, find an adequately expressive metaphor, sink into existential grief.

The Hypocrites adaptation of “Three Sisters” aims to bring Chekhov to a generation of “Downton Abbey” viewers. It is an honorable task that the company is more than equipped to handle. There are moments of audience-baiting—a casual “whatever” or two gets dropped—though things mostly stick to the script. There is a wedding, a fire, a couple of affairs and a duel, all of which take place offstage. Like a decadent feast, the real story takes place in the kitchen, not the dining room.

Naturally, this is Chekhov’s prerogative. Given the atmospheric nature of “Three Sisters,” the challenge is in staging. Director Geoff Button is undeniably talented in this regard. While the period and tableau may require rigidity, his actors remain fluid and graceful. They work harmoniously toward the play’s delightful anticlimax and dour conception of life constantly on the cusp of truly beginning. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Paranoid Style in American Politics/First Floor Theater

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(left to right) Mitch Salm, Luke Michael Grimes, Kate Cornelius-Schecter and Amanda Fink/Photo:  Subar

Mitch Salm, Luke Michael Grimes, Kate Cornelius-Schecter and Amanda Fink/Photo: Subar

RECOMMENDED

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a new play by Emmett Rensin now premiering with First Floor Theater, takes its name from a famous 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter. In the essay, Hofstadter surveys the Goldwater-era radical right and sees a raving bunch of loons convinced they are locked in an eternal struggle against the forces of darkness. It’s the sort of work that you could read and, minus a few period-specific references, be utterly convinced that it was written yesterday.

Rensin’s play doesn’t discover any further insights into the American Conservative mind, but it does employ the paranoia and ideological extremism therein to craft an enjoyable political whodunnit. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Bloodhound Law/City Lit Theater Company

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bloodhoundlaw press pic _2

David Fink, Alex Glossman, Brian Bradford/Photo: Tom McGrath

RECOMMENDED

Playwright Kristine Thatcher has written an important play, and it has landed in the hands of exactly the right theater company for its world premiere. Commissioned and produced as the fifth and final installment of City Lit’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Project, “The Bloodhound Law” examines Illinois’ abolitionist stance leading up to that war. Beginning with the story of journalist Elijah Lovejoy, who dared to print anti-slavery editorials and was subsequently shot to death in Alton, and ending the journey with Chicago’s Common Council’s internal skirmishes over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, or The Bloodhound Law, Thatcher’s historical dramatization of this tale of human rights denied gallops all the way from downstate to Chicago’s City Hall.

City Lit regularly produces adaptations of literary works, making this type of project particular to their province, and their team’s steady hand is very much in evidence. Director Terry McCabe wisely keeps his nine actors onstage throughout, giving them the freedom to rise from their seats, don a hat or a vest, and undertake another of the multiple characters assigned to all without the shuffling of entrances and exits. Liz Cooper’s lighting design keeps the focus of the narrative distinct, and dialect coach Catherine Gillespie succeeds with a yeoman’s assignment of forty-two characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum/ Porchlight Music Theatre

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena

(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena

RECOMMENDED

Coming on the heels of their insightful production of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Porchlight Music Theatre provides just enough silly to make “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” work. To make up for the lack of memorable hit numbers (although “Comedy Tonight” will keep you humming the next day), director Michael Weber keeps the pace and antics high. Flourishes include a very funny amount of tragedy in the opening number (as if to prove this is indeed a comedy) as well as a decidedly “cheeky” Miles Blim (as Hero) at the beginning of the second act. These fresh ideas go a long way in ensuring that the redundancy of characters dressing in drag, dressing as each other, or dressing as each other in drag is funnier than it is stale. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sounds So Sweet/Black Ensemble Theater

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Melanie McCullough, Cherise Thomas and Jessica Brooke Seals/Photo: Danny Nicholas

Melanie McCullough, Cherise Thomas and Jessica Brooke Seals/Photo: Danny Nicholas

Written and directed by Rueben D. Echoles, “Sounds So Sweet” follows the Harris family on their journey to lay their matriarch to rest. As the Harris’ gather in Mississippi to host Grandstine’s (Yahdina U-Deen) “Going to Heaven Party,” they reflect on the soundtrack of their lives, which mainly features hits from R&B, hip-hop and soul girl groups from the 1960s to the present.

As Grandstine’s youngest daughter, Marcia, Dawn Bless undoubtedly steals the show. She is a powerhouse singer and, when the family isn’t recollecting fond memories of their dearly departed, they’re snooping into Marcia’s romance with her longtime friend, Robert Clarkson (Casey Hayes).

The cast is musically strong overall, but the majority of the acting lacks a certain realism to draw the audience in. In addition, while the song selection is varied enough for audience members of all ages to enjoy, the book is extremely cliché, predictable and feels more like filler between musical numbers than substantial text moving the story along. The best number of the show is an impressive mash-up of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the Destiny’s Child hit “Survivor.” Read the rest of this entry »

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