Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Great God Pan/Next Theatre Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

It’s been one of those days for Jamie (Brett Schneider), the shaky protagonist of Next Theatre’s “The Great God Pan.” First, he discovers that his live-in girlfriend Paige (Kristina Valada-Viars) is pregnant, a development this man-child is not prepared for. Then Frank (Matt Hawkins), a long-lost grade school friend, tells him that he may well have been molested decades ago by Frank’s father—an incident that Jamie cannot remember, either because it never happened or has been strategically forgotten.

Jamie’s attempt to cope with these two entangled situations is at the heart of playwright Amy Herzog’s seventy-five-minute work. Is his inability to commit to Paige due to a repressed history of sexual abuse? Is his poor recollection of childhood a means of warding off traumatic memories? Is his aura of anxiety and defensiveness a symptom of past horrors or just his tightly wound, default personality?

Unfortunately, we never quite learn the answers to these key questions, as Herzog has written only the first two acts of a three-act play. The abrupt ending, which arrives just before what should be the climax, comes off less as pregnant ambiguity than as cop-out, relieving the writer of the responsibility of taking a position and seeing the situation and characters through. 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: Hedda Gabler/Writers Theatre

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Kate Fry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Kate Fry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

That the most famous image emanating from a Norwegian mind, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” is an existential wail seems appropriate for a land where darkness weighs so heavily, both in nature and in the soul. The eighteen-hour winter nights seem to foster a surplus of brooding about the meaning of life, of boredom and of alcohol-fueled therapy offset by a surplus of social cheerfulness by day (so say I as an American of three-quarters Norwegian ancestry). Though Munch’s enduring image was created a few years after Henrik Ibsen’s play, its spirit resides forcefully in the main character of “Hedda Gabler.”

The scream rages internally in Hedda Gabler, one of the most complex, fascinating characters in theater, yet in Kate Fry’s masterful performance in the Writers Theatre production, we hear its muted presence throughout. Crafted more than a century ago in Victorian Europe, Hedda is as modern a woman as any creation today, a newlywed completely disenchanted with the mores of her gender’s supposed predilection for homemaking and bearing children. She has contempt for the very idea of love. The only hint of passion in Hedda’s world comes via the troubled intellectual Eilert Lovborg: they are soul mates manifesting in opposites: he out of control, she always in control, he a social outcast, she carefully holding onto certain small social formalities even as she rejects the larger expectations of the world in which she lives. 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: Homecoming 1972/Chicago Dramatists

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Photo: Jeff Pines

Photo: Jeff Pines

The story of the solider returning home from war is as ancient as Odysseus and as contemporary as the evening news. The specifics may vary, but the central conceit of the Greek legend is the same as William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives”: a man leaves home one person and returns home another, having undergone, for better or for worse, a transformation. And for millennia, the change was newfound honor and valor reflecting chivalrous or not-so-chivalrous bravery. Being the hometown personification of war, the solider was a hero. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Whipping Man/Northlight Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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An onstage door left ajar has an unusual way of commanding an audience’s attention. Unspoken judgment accompanies gawking at the unattended entranceway as though a character from a different play might suddenly wander in and rudely unwrap a Jolly Rancher. The powerful wooden doors were left open a crack on Friday night at Northlight Theatre, while a realistic background rain poured. But in Matthew Lopez’s popular play, “The Whipping Man,” this is no mistake. The door is open for the Prophet Elijah.

Per the Passover tradition, a seat at the “table” is kept empty as well. Caleb (Derek Gaspar), Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze) and John (Sean Parris) sit around a repurposed crate, improvising a Seder in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. What could be more unexpected than a Civil War Seder? Even more shocking are the location and the participants. In the conflict-ravaged southern city of Richmond, Virginia, in a once opulent house pummeled by violence and looting (set by Jack Magaw), Caleb is a Confederate soldier, back at his all-but-empty home with a debilitating injury; John and Simon are his slaves, now free men, both of whom devoutly practice Judaism. It sounds like the setup to a historian’s “man walks into a bar” joke, but Lopez has written a visceral play of hardship, deep-rooted prejudice and prevailing strength of character.

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Review: The Letters/Writers’ Theatre

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RECOMMENDED

Borrowed from its own script, “it’s a blessing to be satisfied with so little” is an excellent way of describing “The Letters” at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. Short and sweet at just seventy-five minutes, John Lowell’s 2008 potboiler transforms the bookshop theater space into a 1930s Russian government office in its regional debut with direction by critically acclaimed Kimberly Senior. Set under the relentless rule of Stalin prior to WWII, the Orwellian fear of government institutions smothering its citizens was all too real.

“The Letters” is not necessarily a period piece, rather a study in dramatic structure. Relying on the interview device, Lowell delicately coaxes guilt out of his two characters. Immediately at unease, government transcriber Anna (Kate Fry) nervously fidgets while waiting in her boss’ office. Once the brazen and smug Director (Mark L. Montgomery) enters, tension starts to build. Read the rest of this entry »

Off to the Races: Theatre Seven Kicks Up an “American Storm”

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Photo: Carolyn Mullany

By Johnny Oleksinski

The past few months have been mighty eventful for Theatre Seven of Chicago, to say the least. The six-year-old storefront company became this year’s recipient of Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theatre Award in April, and it was announced that they will present Christina Anderson’s “Blacktop Sky” as part of Steppenwolf’s Fourth Annual Garage Repertory in the Spring of 2013. Exciting achievements, to be sure, but regardless of the relative media glitz, this eager-yet-mature company’s steady goal remains, as artistic director Brian Golden told me, in “not just cranking out a hit, but in really trying to lift up our community.”

Beginning on November 16, Theatre Seven continues that valiant effort with the professional world premiere of Carter W. Lewis’ “American Storm,” a “big stinkin’ play” of politics, corporate business and a dwindling American pastime, at the Greenhouse Theater. The work is a challenge for any theater, let alone an itinerant storefront. It requires twelve actors over a broad spectrum of ages, uses constantly shifting locales and revolves around the wide-open sport of horse racing. But Golden felt compelled to put on the play since seeing it as a student at Washington University. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan/Redtwist Theatre

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RECOMMENDED

“Ireland isn’t idyllic, and the Aran Islands aren’t meant to be a tourist trap… Inishmaan isn’t supposed to be an escape but a prison–something nasty, brutal and short.” So says the dramaturg’s note on the playbill of Redtwist Theatre’s newest production. The near-claustrophobic theater space, with stark grey stone for the walls and floor and a spartan collection of set pieces, makes for an immediate confrontation with Inishmaan’s nastiness. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago Dramatists announces 2012-2013 season

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CHICAGO DRAMATISTS ANNOUNCES 2012-2013 SEASON INCLUDING THREE WORLD PREMIERE PRODUCTIONS

CHICAGO—Chicago Dramatists, known for producing innovative and award-winning new work, is proud to announce its 34th season featuring three world premiere productions by its Resident Playwrights. Chicago Dramatists continues to nurture the city’s most promising playwrights and to push the envelope with the newest plays, helping to advance Chicago’s reputation as a leader in American theatre new play development. The season begins with Freshly Fallen Snow, September 20 – October 28, by Resident Playwright M.E.H. Lewis and directed by Associate Artistic Director Meghan Beals McCarthy. The first show of 2013 is Southbridge, January 24 – March 13, by Resident Playwright Reginald Edmund and directed by Artistic Director Russ Tutterow. The Chicago Dramatists’ season concludes with Homecoming 1972, May 16 – June 23, by Resident Playwright Robert Koon and directed by Associate Artist Kimberly Senior. Tickets for the 2012-2013 season go on sale July 1, 2012. Chicago Dramatists is located at 1105 W. Chicago Avenue, performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. individual ticket prices are $32, and student tickets are $15 for all Thursday performances. For more information or reservations visit www.chicagodramatists.org or call 312.633.0630.  Read the rest of this entry »