Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre

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Nina O'Keefe/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Nina O’Keefe (center) /Photo: Jonathan L. Green

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In a way Chekhov is a lot like Nirvana, in that it’s really easy to forget how great he was when you’ve been inundated with a century of increasingly pale imitations. If Chekhov’s “The Seagull” were considered his “Nevermind,” then Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” would be Creed’s “HumanClay.” Yet in “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s tragic/comic/foolish/wise/heroic/cowardly (alright, alright Chekhovian) protagonist Konstantin fantasizes about new forms of theater, ones that will shake off the dusty old retreads and lead audiences into a brave new tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that playwright Aaron Posner has chosen “The Seagull” for the funny, heartbreaking, fourth-wall battering post-punk manifesto that is his play “Stupid Fucking Bird.” And happily for both Posner and local audiences alike, Sideshow Theatre Company has given the show a breathless (as in “Breathless”) Chicago premiere.

The play itself is sometimes a little hard to describe in that it simultaneously is “The Seagull” and is not. The characters are all in place (with one notable consolidation) and the story follows the original to a tee… except when it doesn’t. However, the dialogue is all original and Posner creates a number of gorgeous original exchanges, except when he’s directly riffing on the original with smart-ass lines like “Because it’s slimming.” The best way to summarize it is that Posner uses “The Seagull” the way a child uses a Power Rangers action figure to concoct his own original story. He uses it to ask what the hell is wrong with our theater and, by extension, what the hell is wrong with us. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Kokkola/Akvavit Theatre

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Finnish playwright, director and actress Leea Klemola has been causing quite a stir as a founding member of Helsinki’s Aurinko (Sun) Theatre since the mid-1990s, where many of her incendiary and groundbreaking productions were first produced. Using her celebrity as a popular film actress that had won Finland’s highest acting award, the Jussi, for her starring turn in 1997’s “Neitoperho” to garner attention as a cutting-edge playwright and director, Klemola has written and directed works that manage to be simultaneously provocative and popular. Her 2004 play “Kokkola”—the first in what has thus far been a triptych of “arctic tragedies” partially co-written with her brother and actor Klaus Klemola—is receiving its American premiere by the Chicago-based Akvavit Theatre, a young company which devotes itself to presenting contemporary Nordic plays. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Three Sisters/Steppenwolf Theatre

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In the wake of two new high-profile adaptations of Anton Chekhov’s classic plays by playwrights Sarah Ruhl and Annie Baker, Steppenwolf Theatre Company has wrought its own homegrown version of “The Three Sisters” by “August: Osage County” scribe Tracy Letts. And, for months, Letts’ turn has been the talk of the town.

Chicago, being familiar with Letts’ coarser indulgences, “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” has been swept up in a whirlwind of understandable curiosity over how the violent playwright would interpret Chekhov’s renowned verbal eloquence. Outside the theater, smooth-talking gamblers could be heard taking bets on the possible number of expletives in Mr. Letts’ Act One. Well, not really. But that’s a close approximation of the community hubbub. Rejoice, Letts fans! Now, the ever-rebellious Masha exclaims “Life sucks, so let’s live it up!” at the dinner table. But Chekhov scholars, rest assured that this predominantly standard production will not shock your delicate samovar-loving sensibilities. I promise. Read the rest of this entry »

Piccolo Theatre announces 2011-2012 season

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Here’s the press release from Piccolo Theatre:

Piccolo Theatre Announces:
2011-2012 Season

Evanston – Piccolo Theatre announces a hilarious and exciting line-up for their 2011-2012 season.  Following a triumphant and laughter-filled 10th Anniversary Season, Piccolo Theatre Artistic Director John Szostek has the Piccolo Ensemble back on the boards for two brilliantly funny classics and an original Holiday Panto. Piccolo Theatre welcomes back playwright Jessica Puller who has penned her third crazier-than-ever Panto, now in its eighth year as a family holiday tradition.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: El Nogalar/Goodman Theatre and Teatro Vista

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Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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The United States’ long-troubled relationship with its southern border state tends to paint much of our perception of Mexico in simple black-and-white tones. Tanya Saracho’s reworking of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” as “El Nogalar” (The Pecan Orchard) crafts a more complex and colorful picture of a nation not only in a constant struggle to come to terms with its neighbor to the north, for sure, but also with its own troubled past and present. A clever idea, this, taking such a familiar work, so European in its themes of class and family, and setting it in Latin America where European colonizers long ago exported their notions of landed gentry, class discrimination and violent conquest.

The matriarch, Maité (played with vivacious abandon by Charín Alvarez), has returned from a self-imposed exile, along with her Americanized younger daughter Anita (energetically played by Christina Nieves), to her family’s ancestral home in northern Mexico, where her older daughter Valeria (earnestly played by Sandra Delgado) wages a losing battle to hold on in the face of an evaporating fortune and, more ominously, the violent threats of the Mexican “mafia.” Saracho’s innovations here,  in a crackling and funny script augmented by the creative direction of Cecilie D. Keenan, include a clever way of blending English, Spanish, Spanglish and Espanglés that in itself hints at the complexity of modern Mexican life. And Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set, an exquisite dollhouse in an orchard, establishes the unreal fantasy of the family’s notion of its place in the world before a word is spoken. Read the rest of this entry »

Steppenwolf Theatre Company announces 2011-2012 season

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Here’s the press release from Steppenwolf:

Steppenwolf Theatre Company Announces 2011/12 Subscription Season

CHICAGO (March 2, 2011) – Steppenwolf Theatre Company is pleased to announce its 2011/12 Subscription Season.  Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 2 at 11 am.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Feet of Clay/LASTmatch Theatre Company

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“Feet of Clay” is LASTmatch’s Southern Gothic response to “Three Sisters.” But that was then and this is now; Stephen Louis Grush’s script tries and fails to model Chekhov’s chronicle of loneliness.

Orah, Matty and Iris (Kimberly Logan, Jennifer Alexander, Leah Karpel) drink and bitch in their father’s house. Servicemen Vincent (Paul Dunckel), Sonny (Craig Cunningham) and Nick (Brandon Ford) moon over them in the booze-laced periphery.

The isolation doesn’t translate here; with social media, no one’s cut off from old loves or far-off places. Marriage isn’t the only option for today’s woman. Dying to live in New Orleans? Get on the bus, girl. The piece’s first half is weighed down with exposition, yet Sonny’s PTSD symptoms go unexplored, the family’s sense of privilege and its loss is undefined and a climactic murder goes undramatized. The truncated ending offers no real resolution. After all their heartache, those girls deserve one. (Lisa Buscani)

LASTmatch Theatre Company at the Royal George Gallery Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, (312)988-9000. Through March 19.

Review: The Seagull/Goodman Theatre

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Stephen Louis Grush and Mary Beth Fisher/Photo: Liz Lauren

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A scene late in the first act says everything about Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and about Goodman Theatre’s powerful production. It’s a reconciliation between the larger-than-life (especially in her own mind) actress Arkadina, played to self-absorbed perfection by Mary Beth Fisher, and her overshadowed, would-be artistic son, Konstantin, depicted by the suitably brooding Stephen Louis Grush. Tender, gentle, we see the mother and child emerge in these two characters but then, an assertive inquiry tests the new waters of intimacy and soon the tenderness has turned into vicious conflict. Not only do the themes at play in this scene—intergenerational struggle, the capricious ways of the heart, the fight for the artistic soul and so forth—define “The Seagull,” so too the acting challenges in performing a scene with such a rapid yet precisely paced tonal swing that could so easily come off as forced or, even worse, laughable. Fortunately, director Robert Falls has gathered some of the finest actors working in Chicago—perhaps one of the best ensembles ever assembled on a local stage—and, not simply content to let them do what they always do, has rehearsed the play for seven weeks, double the normal time. The result is a Chekhov production to rival the finest anywhere (notably reminiscent of Maly Drama Theatre’s “Uncle Vanya” at Chicago Shakespeare in March), one where, with a minimal set and lighting (in fact, the first scenes are performed in full house lights), all the stakes are placed with the actors, who sit along a back bench when “offstage” to further emphasize their ownership of this production. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chekhov Kegstand/Gorilla Tango Theatre

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Kimberly Franck and Joe Schlotter/Photo: Bryan Cohen

I once took someone who had never seen Chekhov to a production of “Uncle Vanya” and afterwards asked them what they thought. Through laughter, they told me, “So they’re like a bunch of self-absorbed, hyper-articulate narcissists who don’t realize how tragically funny they are—it’s like ‘Seinfeld’.” He was right. But the thing about Chekhov’s characters is that they also have great inner lives—no matter how stilted—and through intellect or emotion (or comedy) ironically exude a great appreciation for living, so much so that watching a good “Vanya,” like any great production of Chekhov, makes you want to do more with your own life the moment you step foot outside the theater. That may or may not be achievable but, to paraphrase Harold Bloom on the subject, good Chekhov makes you want to at least try. The self-absorbed and bland characters in “Chekhov Kegstand,” author Bryan Cohen’s “irreverent take on ‘Uncle Vanya’” at Gorilla Tango Theatre, inspire zilch, even as they sit around and blabber about missed chances here, lost opportunities there and spouting whatever banalities on college life Cohen feels deserves the “Chekhovian” treatment. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Uncle Vanya/Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg

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Photo: Viktor Vassiliev

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It’s easy for Chicagoans to take great ensemble acting for granted. After all, we get it in abundance thanks to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. But in reality, you could count on one hand the number of great theatrical acting ensembles in the world, and among them surely is the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg. On par with seeing Moliére done by the Comédie-Française in Paris, or Strindberg performed by the Dramaten (Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre), the prospect of experiencing an authentic Russian-language production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by the Maly ensemble is one of those rare theatergoing opportunities that doesn’t come around too often. Read the rest of this entry »