Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Animal Farm/Steppenwolf For Young Adults

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AnimalFarm_Production10

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There is something significant about the prolific writer George Orwell using stories as his vehicle for political action. Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and suffered a gunshot wound to the throat, knew the limitations war had in bringing about genuine change.  Simply exchanging political systems and leaders was equally insufficient. For as writer and feminist Audre Lorde states, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

To bring about impactful change that would revolutionize the world, Orwell needed a different weapon than the master’s tools. So with pen in hand as his chosen artillery, he took to the battlefield of the blank page and an allegory entitled “Animal Farm” emerged the victor.

Written to pierce the consciousness of men to provoke social action, Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ (SYA) production of the classic novel achieves what Orwell intended. In this soul-stirring adaptation, it won’t be long before you, yourself, will want to join in the revolution happening on stage.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ionesco Suite/Theatre de la Ville at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Left to right: Jauris Casanova, Céline Carrère, Stéphane Krähenbühl, San-dra Faure, Olivier Le Borgne, and Charles Roger Bour/Photo: Agathe Pouoponey.

Jauris Casanova, Céline Carrère, Stéphane Krähenbühl, Sandra Faure, Olivier Le Borgne and Charles Roger Bour/Photo: Agathe Pouoponey.

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It was a happy coincidence that I happened to catch Theatre de la Ville’s “Ionesco Suite” within a day of seeing Strawdog Theatre’s production of “Fail/Safe.” Both shows traffic in mid-century post-nuclear absurdism, one through skewering the bourgeois with comedic fragmentation and formalist experimentation and one through showing a bunch of B-movie archetypes almost blow up the world. They are about as different as two shows can be while still being about the same basic thing: what it’s like to live in a world that could be blown to smithereens at any second. And whereas “Fail/Safe” portrays the absurdity of this condition (and does a white-knuckle job of it), “Ionesco Suite” goes a step further by embodying it, like the play itself is having a nervous breakdown.

The show, an original creation by Theatre de la Ville’s artistic director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, is part collage, part human-centipeding of a number of Eugene Ionesco’s works. Ionesco was a leading light in the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement of the fifties and sixties along with Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Friedrich Durrenmatt and many others. Their shows eschewed traditional realism (which is great for Chicago, as we’re up to our eyeballs in the stuff) in favor of heightened stylization, all the better to highlight the absurdities on display and heighten their alienating affect. The show includes scenes from Ionesco’s plays “The Bald Soprano,” “The Lesson” and “Jack, or The Submission” among others. It is not an attempt to cut and paste these excerpts into a single cohesive whole, and it doesn’t play like a greatest-hits album either. Really it’s more like reading a fine book of short stories, something along the lines of George Saunders’ “The Tenth of December.” Each segment presents a different view on the same condition, like a series of shadows all cast from a single light. Read the rest of this entry »

A Bigger Sandbox: Hubbard Street Dance and The Second City Play Together

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Joey Bland and Robyn Mineko Williams

Joey Bland and Robyn Mineko Williams

Two tremendously gifted groups of craftspeople working in different mediums have joined their toolboxes and been set loose in one of the biggest workshop playgrounds in the city. A massive amount of talent is in the mix, both in quality and quantity: the entire Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Hubbard Street 2 companies—twenty-seven dancers combined—plus the four writers, six actors and musical director of The Second City. Simultaneous rehearsals spread across four rooms at Lou Conte Dance Studio, with musicians, actors, directors, choreographers and dancers bouncing from room to room, piecing together their individually developed scenes—about twenty-five scenes in all, according to Hubbard Street artistic director Glenn Edgerton—some driven by text, with dance woven in, some driven by dance in a theatrical context; and the final start-to-finish product is something of a mystery to all, save Second City director Billy Bungeroth, just one week before the production. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond the Limits of Language: Happy Days at Theatre Y

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Melissa Lorraine

Melissa Lorraine/Photo: Devron Enarson

By Hugh Iglarsh

If any one play embodies Theater of the Absurd, it’s Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in which protagonist Winnie chatters away through Act I while buried above her waist in, well, waste. In Act II she is up to her neck in it. No explanation is proffered. Her situation is what it is, somewhere between open-ended visual metaphor and vaudeville schtick. It is a provocation to the audience and a kind of torture for the exposed and immobile performer. But if we’re all lucky, out of this chaos of word and image something begins to happen between viewer and actor that has little to do with the conventions of story or character, or even theme. It’s something both simpler and deeper: a kind of communion.

“A Beckett play is really a score, it’s music,” says poet-playwright-scholar András Visky, who has come from Romania to direct Theatre Y’s soon-to-open production of this rarely revived 1961 classic. “Nobody goes to a Bach concert and asks, ‘What does it mean?’ Beckett inherited after World War II the fully meaningless language of the Western tradition—a culture that, as he himself saw, doesn’t protect you from murder. So he felt he had to go back to a zero point, beyond the limits of language.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mighty Ted/MCL Theater

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The Mighty Ted 1-2

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It’s been said that life can be more hilarious than fiction. So, what happens when someone has a stroke, their spouse loses their job, and both husband and wife are faced with enormous life changes that would generally cause despair? How about write a musical comedy? That’s exactly what happens in “The Mighty Ted,” a fantastic new musical at MCL Chicago.

“The Mighty Ted” traces the real life story of Ted Waltmire, who also plays the lead in the show. Ted is, as one of the numbers clearly states, “an average guy.” Aside from having a deep love of music, especially Stephen Sondheim musicals, he generally wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, spends time with his wife, Michelle (portrayed by Cheryl Szucsits), goes to sleep and repeats the same routine pretty regularly day in and day out. That is, until he has a stroke. After that, his life is turned upside down. Ted has to relearn everything from walking and talking to getting dressed, with limited mobility on one side of his body.  Meanwhile, Michelle not only has to adjust to Ted’s healing process, but she also struggles to find employment after losing her job. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: At Last: A Tribute to Etta James/Black Ensemble Theater

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The five Etta James with Rueben D. Echoles and Ms. Real

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“Etta James. Etta James. I love me some Etta James!” The fabulous Ms. Real (played by the equally fabulous Rueben D. Echoles) proclaims that message more than once throughout Jackie Taylor’s “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Ms. Real is the narrator of this story. She keeps all five Ettas (from a young Etta to an Etta near the end of her life) on pace and honest with themselves. Echoles delivers a Ms. Real that is aptly titled—and costume changes (designed by Ruthanne Swanson) that, like Etta, just get better and better over time.

It seems fitting that James is played by a cast of five women. After all, the script duly notes that she was “five or six people most of the time.” Her talent surely had that kind of feel. She started singing in her church choir at age five and as a teenager she was already recording singles, like the number one US R&B hit, “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry).” Over the course of her rollercoaster career—while fighting battles with weight, drug addiction and searching for love from others as well as herself in her personal life—James released more than fifty singles (many of which made Billboard’s Hot 100 list and/or Billboard’s R&B Hot 100 list) and received Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Best Traditional Blues Album, Best Jazz Vocal Performance and a Lifetime Achievement. She was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Frozen on the Square (1982)/Akvavit Theatre

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Photo: Sooz Main

Photo: Sooz Main

There was a moment in Akvavit Theatre’s US premiere of “The Frozen on the Square (1982)” when the lonely extras that populate the action were staring out into the black nothingness of a frozen Swedish winter and contemplating the infinitesimally tiny corner of said frozen nothingness that makes up the whole of their existence. There was a moment that I understood exactly what it was they were feeling. I wasn’t just there with them. I was them.

In retrospect, I think this was really just an anticipation of what doctors now like to call “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” It’s the kind of existential despair that lives only in the deadest of winters and can only be experienced when one finds itself dead in the middle of one. As the weather grows colder now, and the days shorter, I know that these moments’ expansive, mournful bleakness will soon be upon me. And it’s at times like this that I look at the films of Swedish auteur-of-auteurs Ingmar Bergman and I think “Man…what kind of movies would you have made if you grew up in Jamaica?”

Bergman is also very much on the mind of “The Frozen on the Square (1982),” mostly because it is set during the filming in his hometown of scenes from “Fanny and Alexander.” Bergman himself appears briefly in the play (and is played in turn with an apt inscrutability by Rob Cramer) but he is not its subject. The subject is rather the small, tortured, absurd lives of the town’s residents. They appear as extras in the film, seeking to warm themselves by Bergman’s bright, effervescent flame. But the moment is brief, and they are soon turned back to the sub-zero meagerness of their own insignificant lives.

Needless to say, the play is a comedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dead Accounts/Step Up Productions

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 (l to r) Emily Tate, Steve O'Connell and Elizabeth Antonucci/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Emily Tate, Steve O’Connell and Elizabeth Antonucci/Photo: Michael Brosilow

I don’t know what New York City did to Theresa Rebeck to piss her off so mightily, but whatever it was she seems to have really taken it to heart. Of course, that’s not quite true. I do know what New York City did, and it goes by the name of “The 2008 Financial Crisis.” Rebeck’s 2012 play “Dead Accounts,” now receiving its Chicago premiere in the hands of Step Up Productions, is what’s commonly known as an angry screed. And like so many screeds before it the play works itself up into such a lather that it becomes incoherent. It confuses New York City in general with Wall Street in particular, and in doing so conflates geography with destiny (or maybe culpability is a better word) and undermines its own very salient point of view. Wall Street deserves to be excoriated for what it did to this country, but “Dead Accounts” is about as imperfect a messenger as any to be found.

In all honesty, the script isn’t really worthy of the solid, heartfelt production that it receives from Step Up. Director Jason Gerace and his talented cast, led by Steve O’Connell, imbue Rebeck’s words with an energized empathy that makes for a moving, entertaining evening. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Vandal/Steep Theatre Company

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Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor/Photo: Lee Miller

Kendra Thulin and Alex Gillmor/Photo: Lee Miller

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Playwright Hamish Linklater’s first play is being billed by Steep Theatre as “funny.” But there was not a single laugh from the audience the night I saw the show. Alright, there were two abrupt snorts that might have been a reaction to a tripped funny-wire but, in this production, the play is hardly comical. What “The Vandal” is, is a very smart, well-paced discussion of life, death, truth and love, from an existential viewpoint. When a freshman playwright sits down at a table with Sartre, Beckett, and Stoppard, and uses all the right forks and doesn’t slurp the soup, attention must be paid.

It is hardly possible to comment on the plot without giving away its surprising twists and turns, and naming the questions the audience will want to ask themselves on their way home. I’ll go so far as to say that anything might be true or not, someone might love someone or not, and someone might be dead. Or not. And listen for the rapid-fire, almost thrown-away warblings, for that’s when the birds are singing the “real” story. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: River North Dance Chicago/Harris Theater

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Photo: Cheryl Mann

Photo: Cheryl Mann

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“I was surprised,” choreographer Ivan Perez said when I asked how it was to work with the dancers of River North Dance Chicago. “They’re very jazz-based and I was surprised how invested they were in learning this work and how they took to it. It’s great to work with companies well established in this vocabulary, but it can be more interesting to work with dancers looking to challenge themselves and do something new.”

Perez is an independent choreographer, born in Spain and residing in the Netherlands, where he has lived since his stint as a company member of Nederlands Dans Theater. He is in Chicago by invitation of Frank Chaves, artistic director of River North, which celebrates twenty-five years this fall. The invitation was essentially a cold call; Chaves found a clip from Perez’s “Flesh” on YouTube, and the thee minutes worth of duet he saw was enough to inspire Chaves to call up the young choreographer in The Hague and talk about a visit to set the piece on River North. “It was my first experience shopping online for a choreographer,” Chaves said, “and I scored.” Read the rest of this entry »