Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Iphigenia in Aulis/Court Theatre

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Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Watching a Greek drama is odd, because your moral compass gets completely rewritten. There’s a moment in Nicholas Rudall’s new translation of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” when Clytemnestra says to her husband Agamemnon something along the lines of “Remember when you met me and murdered my (first) husband and killed my two sons in front of me?” Clytemnestra then goes on to point out how she eventually got over that and forgave him and became his loving wife and bore a gaggle of beautiful children, one of which (the titular Iphigenia) Agamemnon is going to sacrifice to the gods so that he and the rest of the Grecians can go fight a war. It struck me as I was listening to these words that I am watching a play in which a man murdered his wife’s first husband and her children and then married her and yet… that fact is incidental to the action currently at hand. It’s barely relevant. A footnote.

I repeat, he murdered her husband and both of her sons in front of her and the entire reason she brings it up is to point out how she totes got over it.

If I saw a modern-day play wherein someone dropped that little tidbit in the middle of an argument, it would stop the play dead in its tracks. There is no possible way that the play could be about anything other than that. It would be “the big secret” that gets revealed halfway through Act 2. Or maybe the play would be a marriage that pulls double duty as a prolonged case of Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Agamemnon’s act would not be treated as incidental. It would be very, very integral. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: M. Butterfly/Court Theatre

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Artistic Director Charles Newell’s fine production affords us the opportunity to reexamine a twenty-six-year-old play that shocked and riveted audiences and critics alike with a study of sexual politics through the lens of the power struggle between the Oriental woman and the Western male. Protagonist Rene Gallimard (Sean Fortunato), a civil servant attached to the French embassy in Beijing, finds his Western masculinity threatened by his marriage to his Teutonic wife Helga (Karen Woditsch), who he is unable to get with child. His long-term love affair with the opera diva Song Liling (Nathaniel Braga) allows Gallimard the feeling of safety; he is awash in the then-prevailing notion that Oriental women, exotic and more than willing to be dominated by the masculine, Western male, never step outside their societally prescribed roles.

But playwright David Henry Hwang turns it all on its head by writing Song as a spy, capable of dominating Gallimard in every way; he is even able to convince Gallimard that his “modesty” requires that his sexual performances be costumed in full, traditional clothing. In these ways, Song covers both his intellectual and his sexual strengths with which he dominates Gallimard. 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: An Iliad/Court Theatre

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow


Quite simply, this is one of the great one-man shows. The story is the greatest, oldest ever told—literally, the start of Western civilization is in “An Iliad.” The Chicago actor Timothy Edward Kane is brilliant, nothing short of spectacular. The set design is intriguing, relevant and worthy in relationship to Kane’s high energy blocking with Charles Newell’s subtle and almost subliminal direction. And the fact that this magnetic piece is told at the Court Theatre, the University of Chicago’s theater, within the same blocks as “Iliad” scholars Nick Rudall, the recently passed Herman Sinaiko and James Redfield, makes for a symmetrical commingling of events in this 100-minute retelling through a transcendent, must-see performance.

It goes something like this: the historical event of Troy vs. Greece takes place somewhere around 1250 BCE. Homer’s bardic retelling is around 750 BCE. Plato and the other classic greats use the backdrop of “The Iliad” full-on by 399 BCE. Aristotle defined it as THE epic. Depending on the translation, the poem is more than 15,000 lines, twenty-four books—Homer would recite, sing and chant the piece for the polis in a twenty-four-hour session, or three eight-hour days.  Imagine a fire, the town crowds gathered, maybe a bottle of something being passed around. The oral tradition begun by the poet, to entertain and educate and philosophize. Read the rest of this entry »

Court Theatre Announces 2013-2014 Season

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Court Theatre in Hyde Park has announced its 2013-2014 season (also its fifty-ninth), which notably features the Chicago premiere of 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner “Water By The Spoonful” by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Proof/Court Theatre

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Kevin Gudahl and Chaon CrossRECOMMENDED

“Proof,” David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the inspiring yet conflicted relationship between a University of Chicago mathematician and his daughter, is making a homecoming of sorts, returning to Hyde Park for a run at Court Theatre.

Director Charles Newell eloquently writes in the program about how the recent loss of a parent made him want to revisit the play and the way in which it deeply resonated with him based on that experience. One of the interesting aspects of “Proof” is that it is a play that can be appreciated from a variety of perspectives: a parent, a child, a sibling, a significant other.

What really jumps out in Newell’s production is the comic brutality of family relationships: how is it that people we love so deeply can so often drive us crazy? In the case of this show, that question is asked rather literally in the sense that the late Robert (Kevin Gudahl), who appears primarily in flashbacks, had a history of mental illness that affected his work and family life. His daughter Catherine (Chaon Cross) had been taking care of him with all of the inevitable curses and blessings that such domestic proximity generates. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Your Grandpa’s Back Porch: Charles Newell Directs A Rethought “Proof” at Court Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Chicago

Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Chicago

By Johnny Oleksinski

White planks. What I’m staring at with the mischievous grin of a shifty-eyed child is a field of neatly lined-up boards with both a silver shimmer and the scratched-at exterior of birch bark—a little bit Chekhov’s Tuzenbach, a little bit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” From the tall ceiling, metal chains stream down to a serene swing, also starkly white. There are two levels and no other furniture. During performances, no more than three props are ever onstage. Colored lights will create location.

“I hope it doesn’t come to bite us in the butt later on,” says Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell, eating a quick dinner while enthusiastically chatting with me. I like it—both the impromptu meal and the reinvigorating perspective on a familiar play. Newell clearly understands the risks associated with what he’s doing. He’s staging David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” in Hyde Park, the actual location it’s set in, without any realistic elements of the neighborhood. Hell, of any neighborhood.

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

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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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Review: James Joyce’s The Dead/Court Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow


The holidays are for many the most miserable time of the year, in contrast with their expressed wonderfulness. As family gathers together, so too do our painful memories and shameful habits, and a room full of people to bring them up.

Perhaps as a distraction from the cold hard truth, holiday entertainment tends to be as sickly sweet as those too many candy canes that weasel their way into every drawer and household crevice. Even Charles Dickens, the grand interpreter of dank Victorian grime, gave his novel’s villain, Ebenezer Scrooge, a spectacular moral turnaround worthy of a family-friendly Muppets dramatization. But “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’,” a musical set in 1904 Dublin, is anything but optimistic, expressing the burdensome realities, joys and pitfalls of life and family. Read the rest of this entry »