Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Preview: JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance/Chicago Human Rhythm Project

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Photo: Paolo Bernadotti

Photo: Paolo Bernadotti

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The only downside to Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s wrap-up performances of their annual Rhythm World festival is trying to decide which show to attend. The series of showcases at the MCA theater are as much party as performance; the audience is always packed with tap dance and percussion enthusiasts—students and teachers of all ages from around the world who come to Chicago to spend the summer teaching, learning and jamming. JUBA! is the closing party—three nights of virtuosic music and rhythmic dance by the best hoofers alive—and the atmosphere is always electric. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor/First Folio Theatre

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The Merry Wives of Windsor Production Photo E
RECOMMENDED

You learn a lot about the level of commitment of a company of actors—to say nothing of the commitment of the audience enjoying them—when both are willing to engage in the rain because, as the Bard himself would say, “the play’s the thing.” Thus, as rain began falling during Act II of First Folio’s opening night of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the cast took no mind of it, and audience members simply covered up or took out umbrellas.

This went on for a time before the show was interrupted since, as First Folio managing director and show producer David Rice put it over the loudspeakers, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a small squall that will pass quickly, please come into the mansion until it does.” The “mansion” is none other than the former home of coal baron Francis S. Peabody, a delightfully opulent environment to come into out of the rain. Yes, the powers that be have sophisticated weather-tracking devices and have storm evasion and the safety of the venues’ performers and audiences down to a science.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Marvelous Marvelettes/Black Ensemble Theater

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When Mary Wilson of the Supremes came through town late last fall, she recalled that the Supremes had no less than seven flops before catching on while another Detroit all-female group, the Marvelettes, had five consecutive hits, including Motown’s first-ever No. 1 hit.

This is history seemingly long-forgotten nearly fifty years later, that there was a time when Motown Records’ founder and president Berry Gordy was actually attempting to model the Supremes on the success of the Marvelettes. So much so, in fact, that he brought the Supremes to the same songwriting team that had written hits for the Marvelettes before the Supremes began charting.

While the Marvelettes have been largely relegated to an early footnote and a chorus of that first hit, “Please Mr. Postman” in Gordy’s own vacuous and self-serving “Motown the Musical,” leave it to Black Ensemble Theater to out-Motown Gordy himself by offering a three-dimensional portrait of Gordy and the inner workings of Motown in its world-premiere production “The Marvelous Marvelettes” by Reginald Williams and directed by Rueben D. Echoles.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: My First Time/Broken Nose Theatre

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MFT6

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Usually when you hear someone use the phrase “the universality of the human experience” it’s a load of hooey. People use it to justify why their production of “Timon of Athens” should be considered relevant to today’s inner-city youth. It’s a weak bromide offered by the Powers That Be to justify telling their stories instead of yours. Anytime I find myself about to use it, I stop and seriously reconsider my position.

That being said, Broken Nose Theatre’s “My First Time” really benefits from the universality of the human experience. And I mean that. Seriously. The show, which Broken Nose is remounting after originally producing the Chicago premiere, began its life as a website: myfirsttime.com. Founded in 1998, the site invited people to anonymously submit stories of how (and why and when and with whom) they lost their virginity. As of this writing, the site has had more than 50,000 entries.

Finally, in 2007, producer Ken Davenport turned it all into a play, drawing from individual tales as well as audience surveys and general statistics. The show reminds me of the work of Dan Savage in its desire to sample from and normalize the vast array of humanity’s sexual experiences. It includes good sex, bad sex, loving sex and rote sex. There are stories of gay awakenings, of why people decided to wait. There is incest, there is rape. There is pretty much everything. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Intimate Apparel/Eclipse Theatre Company

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Kelly Owens and Brandon Greenhouse

Kelly Owens and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Tim Knight

RECOMMENDED

As I sat watching “Intimate Apparel” presented by Eclipse Theatre Company, the words of renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie echoed in my mind: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.” Adichie’s idea—that we as women, no matter how successful we are in our own right, are somehow invalidated if we are not married—is the same societal fallacy that Esther (Kelly Owens) faces in Lynn Nottage’s play set in New York City in 1905.

Esther, a successful seamstress of intimate apparel—especially for an African-American woman during that time –has recently turned thirty-five. Feelings of jealousy, longing and inadequacy emerge as she sits sewing a camisole for a young woman in her boarding house getting ready to be married. Mrs. Dickson (Frances Wilkerson), the African-American woman who took Esther in at seventeen and runs the boarding house, insists her time will come. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Much Ado About Nothing/Midsommer Flight

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Ashlee Edgemon and Martel Manning/Photo: Zack Whittington

Ashlee Edgemon and Martel Manning/Photo: Zack Whittington

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Some of the nicer things in life really are free, such as Shakespeare served al fresco on a summer evening by the talented and community-minded Midsommer Flight theater collective. Now in its third year, the troupe is presenting a rollicking, high-energy “Much Ado About Nothing” at Schreiber, Gross and Touhy Parks on the North Side.

I saw the production at Schreiber, an unpromising square of hardpan near Clark and Devon. The feng shui could have been better. Performing without a backdrop or well-defined stage, the actors struggled at first against the background hubbub—including one ad-lib moment when a passing cyclist, noting the kiss planted by Benedick (Martel Manning) on the pretty Beatrice (Ashlee Edgemon), shouted with perfect comic timing, “Give her another for me!” But once the plot picked up steam after a halting, exposition-laden opening, the audience became hooked on Shakespeare’s trenchantly comic take on the war between the sexes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stoop Time/You&Me Productions

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Joni Arredia

Joni Arredia

“Stoop Time,” a new play staged by You&Me Productions, opens up with friends Jo (Angela Bullard) and Nora (Joni Arredia) having drinks, sharing laughs and recounting stories on Jo’s stoop. Their jovial drunken night is interrupted when a stranger, Reyna (Krystel V. McNeil), comes desperately seeking her lost necklace. Upon helping Reyna to find the necklace, Jo invites her to stay the night, but not without protest from both Nora and Jo’s ex-husband Wolfe (Colin Reeves). Wolfe reminds Jo that she always takes people in. Jo insists that Reyna is not a “stray,” that something is different about her. She turns out to be right. Reyna’s father Richard (Watson Swift), was the head doctor of the hospital Jo worked at while doing relief work in Haiti with Hut Outreach, when she was a nineteen-year-old student at DePaul University. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Principal Principle/Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven of Chicago

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Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Barbara Roeder Harris and Cassy Sanders/Photo: Emily Schwartz

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This summer Chicago audiences are given another chance to see “Principal Principle,” a timely tale examining the potential polarizing effects of assigning corporate data-gathering systems to the educative process in an attempt to ascertain broad-based student “success,” while holding teachers responsible for the necessarily weighted outcomes. Set in a Chicago public high school, playwright Joe Zarrow, an artistic associate at Theatre Seven, has created characters that initially seem stereotypical, a useful device in telling what seems so complex a story. And yet they become beautifully fleshed, and these fulsome creations do not detract from the focused plotting of what might be expected to feel lecture-like; these are very real people, approaching a challenge they were never trained to meet, each in her own particular way, based on her skill set, while unable to fully commit to a system that considers each student a statistic rather than an individual, to be reached, positively affected and released into a world with some semblance of an academic and a social toolkit.

Four English teachers share, examine, cajole, quarrel and teach each other extremely hard lessons in their shared office. Working in a “middle of the road neighborhood” with a “ninety-five-percent African-American” student population, the women are widely varied in their approach to the onslaught of corporate Change Management that has travelled from the world of business to the public school classroom. Read the rest of this entry »

A Peek at the Process: In the Studio with Thodos’ Budding Choreographers

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Photo: Cheryl Mann

Photo: Cheryl Mann

By Sharon Hoyer

For dancers, summer is a season of creative experimentation and growth, with ample opportunities to participate in residencies and intensive classes both in the city and without. Summer is also the time when a few dance companies become incubators for new choreographic talent within their ranks. Thodos Dance Chicago was among the first in the city to offer budding choreographers in the company the opportunity to practice the craft backed by extensive resources, and to have the resulting works performed on a main stage. Melissa Thodos provides her company members audition and rehearsal space, a budget, a lighting designer and a panel of experts to provide feedback both early in the process and close to the performance. They get a taste of artistic production in the big leagues: auditioning, creating work, running rehearsals, gathering collegial feedback. I sat in on the second panel showing at the Drucker Center and got a glimpse of how seasoned dance professionals nurture and challenge the next generation of artists. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Othello/The Gift Theatre

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(L to R) Kareem Bandealy  and Michael Patrick Thornton

Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton

RECOMMENDED

“O these men, these men!” sighs Desdemona (played by Brittany Burch), who is soon to be murdered by her jealous husband, Othello. She is confiding her bafflement to her friend Emilia (Darci Nalepa), who will meet the same fate at the hands of her husband, Iago. Othello’s paranoid rage and Iago’s duplicity and hatred are like the storm roiling the sea around the play’s island setting, chaotic and destructive forces that crash down hardest on the women these soldiers of empire are pledged to protect.

The Gift Theatre’s clear, strong and elegant version of “Othello” captures both the furious momentum and thematic nuances of Shakespeare’s examination of race, patriarchy and authority. Director Jonathan Berry and his skilled cast and crew have brought to the Gift’s tiny stage a production that grips us from the first moment and does not let go. Dan Stratton’s abstract and austere set, Christian Gero’s evocative musical segues and Sarah Hughey’s subtle, noir-style lighting never distract us from the dramatic essentials of language, movement and gesture—which is to say, the acting. Read the rest of this entry »