Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Goblin Market/Black Button Eyes Productions

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Stephanie Stockstill (front) and Jennifer T. Grubb (back)

Sensuous excess comes to life in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem “Goblin Market,” with proliferation of rhymes, synonyms, luscious lists of fruits and “figs to fill your mouth.” It’s easy to imagine the Victorians being titillated by lines such as “she suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more/Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;/She sucked until her lips were sore.” Even reading the poem today, one is struck by the carnal language used to tell the story of two sisters: Laura, who indulges in fruit sold by the goblin men, sucking “their fruit globes fair and red” and Lizzie, who “would not open lip from lip” lest the goblins “cram a mouthful in.” Like any good Victorian lesson, indulgent Laura nearly perishes while Lizzie saves her with a heroic act of abstinence. Read the rest of this entry »

The Trial By Theater: Contemporary Playwrights Inspired by the Prague Master in Kafkapalooza Festival

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Hutch Pimentel, First Floor Theater Artistic Director and Festival Co-Curator

By Hugh Iglarsh

At a time when pop culture often seems like the only game in town, First Floor Theater’s annual literary festival is a refreshing reminder of drama’s richer possibilities. For the third year in a row, the Wicker Park-based troupe is commissioning local playwrights to create short works inspired by a literary master, which will be presented together for a short mid-August run. It was the Brothers Grimm in 2013; last year, it was Mark Twain’s turn.

This year, eight established and emerging Chicago dramatists—Marylin Campbell, Kristiana Colon, Amanda Fink, Skye Robinson Hillis, Ike Holter, Karen Kessler, Brett Neveu and Ariel Zetina—will be taking on the tormented Mittel-European Jewish writer Franz Kafka, who gave us not only his hauntingly enigmatic novels, tales and aphorisms, but also the adjective Kafkaesque, describing the individual’s experience of the opaque, alienated and labyrinthine reality that constitutes modernity. In such works as “The Metamorphosis,” “The Trial” and “The Castle,” Kafka used a deadpan and dreamlike writing style to capture the chronic, subtle strangeness of life within godlike systems and institutions, whose agendas can be neither comprehended nor resisted. He is the prophet of a propagandized and surveilled state, at least as relevant in the era of Gitmo and Snowden as he was in the nineteen-twenties, when the world was convalescing after one catastrophe and slouching toward a worse one.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Crime Scene: The Next Chapter/Collaboraction

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Photo: Sir Taylor (lying down) and Kristin E. Ellis, photo by Joel Maisonet

Sir Taylor (lying down) and Kristin E. Ellis/Photo: Joel Maisonet


For better or worse there has been no shortage of plays about the plights of living in Chicago lately. Yet Collaboraction’s revisitation of their original work about violence in Chicago, now titled “Crime Scene: The Next Chapter,” does something few of the onslaught of recent city tales have managed to do: highlight a grim history while offering a spark of hope that change for the better is not impossible.

The show begins with the theater’s seats blocked off with barricade tape so the audience has to mingle with the cast and with each other. As this happens, statistics about crime across the city are displayed on the walls via projector. Once the tape is removed from the seats, the phenomenal ensemble cast takes the audience through Chicago’s segregation and criminal past from the early 1800s and post-Civil War Certificates of Freedom to the 2012 branding of the Windy City as “Chiraq.”

From there, the five stories of “Chicago Peacemakers” are told, including two stemming from the cast. Sir Taylor, in performance-poetry style, recounts his remarkable story of growing up in Cabrini Green, becoming an original member of the Jesse White Tumblers, and how he went on to join the US Gymnastics Team. His life almost came to a tragic end once he returned to Chicago but, in his struggle, he ended up defeating the odds and found an even greater purpose. Luis Crespo shares his deeply personal family history, starting with audio recordings of his mother and father. He and Antonia Arcely then become Crespo’s parents, acting out the recordings and ultimately portraying a story of love, strength and redemption. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Forgotten Future: The Education Project/Collaboraction

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(from left) Collaboraction’s world premiere of Forgotten Future: The Education Project stars Leah Aberman, a 7th-grader at Lane Tech Academic Center, as Lauren Perry; Esmeralda (Emse) Ayvar-Perez, a sophomore at Lane Tech High School, as Carolina Rodriguez; and Tyrese Hall, a 6th-grader at Alain Locke Charter School on Chicago’s West side, as Issac Tate.

Leah Aberman, Esmeralda (Emse) Ayvar-Perez and Tyrese Hall/Photo: Anna Sodziak


In 2012 the Chicago Teachers’ Union went on strike for a slew of reasons, including objecting to teacher evaluations based on student performance, teacher and school staff layoffs, and the risk of school closures. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, in spite of the strike, more than 2,000 Chicago Public Schools employees were handed pink slips and forty-nine CPS schools closed their doors. Then, at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, an additional 1,000 CPS teachers and staff members were let go. Collaboraction explores what these changes have meant for parents, teachers and, arguably most importantly, CPS students, in the remount of “Forgotten Future: The Education Project,” co-directed by Sarah Moeller and John Wilson.

The set, designed by Ashley Woods, mimics typical school classrooms. Chalkboards adorn the walls along with class spelling words, printed charts about test-taking tips and samples of student work. The play is performed in-the-round, which serves the show well, given the variety of scene settings—from picket lines, to school board hearings, to three particular students’ homes, highlighting their stories. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Edith Can Shoot Things And Hit Them/First Floor Theater

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(left to right) Kevin Matthew Reyes, Aurora Adachi-Winter and Luke Michael Grimes/Photo: Julia Dratel

(left to right) Kevin Matthew Reyes, Aurora Adachi-Winter and Luke Michael Grimes/Photo: Julia Dratel


A. Rey Pamatmat’s luminous (and new-ish) play “Edith Can Shoot Things And Hit Them” has a spirit similar to the eighties classic “Stand By Me,” only with one crucial difference. In that film, the young boys strike out into the wilderness searching for adventure, rejecting the adult-made world in which their daily lives abide. In “Edith,” it is the adult world that has rejected the children, and the wilderness that surrounds them echoes not with limitless possibility but a vast, aching loneliness.

Well maybe not so much for Edith. As played by Aurora Adachi-Winter in First Floor Theater’s Chicago premiere, she is every bit the hot-headed adventurer. She may only be twelve, but the threat made in the play’s title is not an idle one. It is her brother, Kenny (Kevin Matthew Reyes), who at sixteen already has to carry the burden of worrying: about their budget, their food, their gas usage and, of course, whether he can carry on seeing his new boyfriend Benji (Luke Michael Grimes) without Benji’s paranoid, homophobic mother catching on. Having been abandoned by their father in the wake of their mother’s death—infrequent bank deposits serve as his only form of contact—Kenny and Edith have been forced toward the yawning maw of adulthood too early. The play follows their attempts to create a new family from the ashes of their old one. Read the rest of this entry »

Acting With and For Hope: Collaboraction and Park District Invite Chicagoans to a Different Kind of Crime Scene

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Crime Scene 2013 Parks Tour

By Raymond Rehayem

“We’re telling the real story… we see this stuff. We’re telling the grown-ups what’s really happening, the adults don’t really know. That’s because most of the violence that’s going on is with the youth.” So says Monique, a young performer explaining how she and the other nearly two dozen ethnically diverse local teen girls (and one white teen boy, see below) contribute to the upcoming Collaboraction/Chicago Park District theatrical event “Crime Scene Chicago: Let Hope Rise 2014.” The teens comprise the Crime Scene Youth Ensemble, key participants in the multifaceted “touring theatrical reaction to violent crime in Chicago” which unfolds over a month, starting at Collaboraction’s Wicker Park space and touring to a quartet of Park District venues over four subsequent weekends. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: This is Not a Cure for Cancer/Collaboraction

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Anthony Moseley/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Anthony Moseley/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Heartfelt and well-intentioned though it certainly seems, “This is Not a Cure for Cancer” is not an engaging or artful piece of theater. That is not to say it is without craft nor lacking in artifice; throughout the performance, video projections, props and costume changes shift the setting and the emotional tone—in a direct, unsubtle but efficient manner. The more-than-capable large supporting cast is more than game in ensemble moments as brain cells and cancer cells and even enjoyable in individual turns as health care practitioners and game-show hosts. The disparate scenes provide cursory introductions to facets of the disease and controversies over varying treatment options. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up/The New Colony

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Photo by Anne Petersen

Photo: Anne Petersen


Here’s the basic plot: not long after word of their breakup hits the interwebs, ex-mall cop (and current lonely loser) Bill (Rob Grabowski) kidnaps celebrity (ex)couple Kate Thomas (Mary Williamson) and Sam Lewis (Nick Delehanty), drugging them and dragging them to his shitty apartment for sketchy (and potentially dangerous) couples counseling with his Sam-and-Kate-obsessed teenaged friend Becky (Stephanie Shum).

Initially, it sounds like a concept that could wear thin rather quickly, but in playwright Joel Kim Booster’s “Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up,” what starts out as a seemingly lightweight comedy centered around celebrity worship and a tween-book-series-turned-movie-franchise (the wonderfully realized “Ghost Forest”) ever-so-slowly creeps its way into a much darker exploration of obsession, self-loathing and, ultimately, redemption (spoiler alert—there’s someone in the program with the title Violence Designer). And yet, in every disturbing corner that this production turns, its solid comedic core follows carefully throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

A Half-Price CTA Pass: Collaboraction’s Thirteenth Annual Sketchbook Festival

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"Most Delicious"/Photo: Anna Sodziak

“The Most Delicious”/Photo: Anna Sodziak

By Johnny Oleksinski

Last year’s Sketchbook, Collaboraction’s annual festival of new work, was remarkably impressive. The unexpectedly profound and profoundly enjoyable “Honeybuns” by Dean Evans emerged from that collection, earning itself widespread critical affection, a fall 2012 remount and an upcoming run at Theater On the Lake. Even the space’s memorable design was tremendously special. Stacks of colorful building blocks were situated in the room’s corners for seating and patrons lounged around, drinks in hand, casually enjoying the calamities of such an ambitious undertaking. This year, though, none of the full-length plays sparkled with the ravenous creativity of Evans’ one-man mime comedy, leaving much to be desired. Honoring Sketchbook’s origins in brevity, this year’s selection of seven-minute plays, titled “The Brown Line,” is the heartiest section of the four-part festival. The theme for its thirteenth year is “Destination,” the buzzword is “devised” and each of the groupings are named after a CTA train route: Green, Black, Brown and Blue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology/Collaboraction

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Photo: Cesario Moza

Photo: Cesario Moza


Three plays currently playing in Chicago urgently grab hold of prescient national issues both imperative and sickening: “Teddy Ferrara” at the Goodman Theatre, “columbinus” at American Theater Company and, completing the triptych, the forceful “Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology,” which opened on Monday night at Collaboraction.

Besides topical relevance, what invisibly binds these brave theatrical expressions is their messages, powerful and ambiguous. Certainly, they all endeavor to create a more hospitable world and harmonious local community, but, more importantly, they understand that the “how” necessitates a proactive conversation; not finger pointing or rigid thesis statements. These shows never tell you exactly what to think, and, in so doing, stimulate lingering vigorous thought.
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