Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Humans/American Theater Company

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Hannah Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O'Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hanna Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O’Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The specter of loss hangs like a literal specter, a ghost, over Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” currently receiving its world premiere at American Theater Company. The loss of money, of security, of mothers and daughters and those we hold closest to us, of their respect and their love. Karam conjures up these fears and then sends them skittering off into dusty crevices where they become suspicious knocking sounds and burnt out light bulbs and darkened rooms and the ominous whirring of unseen machinery. 9/11 is present too, the latest loss of innocence for the nation itself. The inconceivable terror of a world that comes crashing down in fire, rubble and ash touches the play’s characters more closely than is first apparent. Karam has drawn up a world much like our own, where everything we know can be gone in a second.

The play itself concerns a single family, the Blakes. The parents, Eric (Keith Kupferer) and Deirdre (Hanna Dworkin), are blue-collar Catholic folk from Scranton, the kind that have purchased land for a lake house but have done so as a two-income household and with a fair amount of belt-tightening. They have come down to the wilds of Chinatown in New York City to spend Thanksgiving in the new apartment of their youngest daughter Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and her much older boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker). Their other daughter, Aimee (Sadieh Rifai), is also there. She’s a lawyer from Philly with a failing intestinal tract and a recent separation from her longtime girlfriend. And Eric’s mother, who everyone calls Momo (Jean Moran), is also physically present, although her mind has long been lost to the ravages of dementia. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Let Me Down Easy/American Theater Company

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Usman Ally/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Usman Ally/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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What does it mean to be “let down easy?” When put in the context of being “let down easy” in terms of healthcare, does that idea change? One might interpret the saying to mean when one comes to the end of life there is a peaceful calm. Another might say that when one is ill, it means to have gentleness, a certain kindness in the healing process. Playwright Anna Deavere Smith explores the interpretations of that phrase through interviews she conducted with more than 300 subjects in the Chicago premiere of “Let Me Down Easy,” directed by Bonnie Metzgar at American Theater Company.

Out of the 300 interviews, twenty are part of this production, which also marks the first time “Let Me Down Easy” has been performed by anyone other than Deavere Smith. American Theater Company ensemble member Usman Ally takes on the mighty task of portraying all twenty parts in this one-person show, reciting verbatim what people across the country—from Lance Armstrong to Joel Siegel and people from all walks of life in between—have to say about American medical care. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mercy Strain/American Theater Company

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Michael Milligan/Photo: Michal Daniel

Michael Milligan/Photo: Michal Daniel

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As I walked into the theater and was greeted by the set for “Mercy Strain” I had to smile to myself. The show has been advertised as a hit at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and as it happens I have just recently returned from a visit to the 2014 festival. While there, my friends and I joked that every show we saw had a few things in common, namely the fact that they all included very few actual things. The slots in Edinburgh are so tight that any extraneous props or set pieces have to be cut, lest the time you spend setting up lead to the lights being switched off mid-climax because you’ve run five minutes over. The perfect Fringe show, we would say, probably involves nothing more than a table, a chair and one actor just acting his butt off. Lo and behold, the set for “Mercy Strain” turns out to consist of one table and one chair. All that was needed was one actor acting his butt off and the set would be complete. Happily, by the end of the evening, actor Michael Milligan’s butt is nowhere to be found.

Following its success at the Fringe, “Mercy Strain” has toured across the country. It is being presented in Chicago by American Theater Company in rep with Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy” (starring Usman Ally) as “The Healthcare Plays.” If you get a chance to see both, I highly recommend it, as each show features a single actor embodying the dilemmas inherent in our country’s “What’s Mine is Mine and I’ll Sue for What’s Yours” healthcare system, but in dramatically different ways. Actor Usman Ally embodies nineteen different characters in Deavere Smith’s emotions-impaling docudrama, while Milligan’s piece is an entirely fictional work focused on a single man who unfortunately becomes The United States Healthcare System’s own personal Job. Different as they are in scope, each play will leave you with a fresh, gaping hole where your heart used to be. 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: Hair/American Theater Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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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 »

Review: Sons of the Prophet/American Theater Company

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Photo by Michel Brosilow

Photo: Michel Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The well-intended cliché “God never gives you more than you can stand,” offers precious little comfort for the world’s atheists.  Stephen Karam’s latest deftly examines the nature of suffering, the role of faith and the possibility of finding comfort when the bosom of the Almighty isn’t an option.

Hapless Joseph (an affable Tyler Ravelson) suffers from a mysterious illness while grieving the loss of his father in a tragic accident, caring for his disabled, cantankerous uncle (a hilariously inappropriate Will Zahrn) and supporting his brother Charles (Michael Weingand, negotiating the gap between persuasive and bitchy).  Joseph takes a job with flakey-yet-flinty publisher Gloria (Natalie West) for medical benefits, while sidestepping her efforts to exploit his family’s tenuous connection to famed poet Khalil Gibran. As Joseph’s health spirals, he reaches out to reporter Timothy (a subtly oily Greg Matthew Anderson) for comfort. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women/Theatre Seven of Chicago

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Jaclyn Hennell as Ann Landers

Jaclyn Hennell as Ann Landers

“How do we tell that story and, like, tell the truth?” one hip young ensemble member asks another in the unwieldy (and unwieldily titled) “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women.” Gathered in “a rehearsal room at The Hull House Theatre”—actually American Theater Company, where Kerith Parashak’s mazelike set is appropriately packed with Joshua Hurley’s seemingly random and decaying collection of props—they’re rehearsing the show we’re about to see.

It’s a show about history and Chicago and women. But it’s not going to be THAT kind of show, these actors assure each other as they playfully prepare. Because they wouldn’t want to put on THAT kind of show. They just want to cut the bullshit, tell the truth and not be all “…Historical. Like ‘capital H’ Historical.”

Well, it’s an admirable attempt. The thing is, a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware, meta after-school special is still an after-school special. And no matter how hard this energetic cast works to push back against presenting a rather dry pedagogical series of historical pieces linked together via entertaining (though mostly inane) backstage banter, that’s what this world-premiere production (featuring plays by nine Chicago playwrights) currently is. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Just A Play: “Columbinus” Revised and Revisited at American Theater Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Johnny Oleksinski

“I never thought I’d go back to this play. Ever, ever,” emphatically states PJ Paparelli, artistic director of American Theater Company. He’s talking to me on the phone during a wintry transit, so there is an added emphasis to his assertion. Well, PJ thought wrong. A revised version of his eight-year-old “columbinus” opens this week at American Theater Company, also directed by him. So, why has he returned to it now? After all, the play has been done here before. When Paparelli moved to Chicago to take up the reins of ATC in 2008, Raven Theatre was in the throes of presenting the Chicago premiere of his widely produced work.

He wrote “columbinus” in 2005 with “Sons of the Prophet” playwright Stephen Karam based on interviews with high-school students around the country and citizens of Littleton, Colorado who had been affected by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The play began with a first act set in a fictional high school, and the second segued into specifically Columbine. The New York Theatre Workshop premiere was critically praised and sprouted countless productions nationally.

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The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 3 Comments »

PLAYERSThough we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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