Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover
“You know how you go to most Christmas shows and you’re sitting there and they don’t catch you on fire?” one of the characters in “Burning Bluebeard” rhetorically asks the audience early on, before going on to explain how they ended up doing exactly the opposite during their show. Their show is “Mr. Bluebeard,” a spectacle-filled holiday pantomime performed at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in December of 1903. And the specific performance that’s being discussed is the infamously tragic matinee when the theater caught fire, killing more than 600 people, many of them children.
Originally produced two years ago by the Neo-Futurists at The Neo-Futurarium, this remounting at Theater Wit features the complete original cast, and is once again helmed by director Halena Kays. “Listen,” says Kays, “we wouldn’t come back and do this if this piece and this cast weren’t very special.” And it is indeed special. Written by Jay Torrence (who also performs in it), this semi-historical account features dance, acrobatics, clowning and a surprising amount of comedy. Read the rest of this entry »
Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover
By Mark Eleveld
Chicago is notorious for big fires, big shows and lamentation at such horrific circumstances, all of which can be found in Jay Torrence’s “Burning Bluebeard,” which retells the story of the 1903 Chicago Iroquois Theater fire. “Bluebeard” is a new, classic Chicago story now in its second run, with all of the original players, at Theater Wit. “I romanticize artists who die making their art,” says Torrence, a writer and actor in the show. “The terrible tragedy of it—and that the death of the artist is a spectacle itself, happy endings that go wrong.”
On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theater (now the site of the Oriental Theatre) in the Loop was playing the clown show “Mr. Bluebeard” (with famous Chicago actor Eddie Foy) as part of a holiday matinee. “There were nine songs before the first scene even began in the original,” says Torrence. It was a Christmas Pantomime, a hybrid of dance, song and storytelling, with clowns, mimes and an aerialist; it was also a fairy tale. And the audience packed in for the performance, with some 2,000 people filling the seats and standing area in the back. Of the 2,000, many were children. “A friend showed me a giant photograph of the Iroquois Theater. I was fascinated,” says Torrence. The afternoon theater fire killed nearly 600, many children. “I began reading about it after I saw the photo,” adds Torrence. “I read about Nellie Reed, the aerialist, who was the only performer who did not survive. She was trapped atop. Most of the information comes from court documents, from audience survivors. Nothing from the clowns.” Read the rest of this entry »
Bron Batten and Jim Batten/Photo: Max Milne
“Sweet Child of Mine” is a short, entertaining theatrical piece by Bron Batten and her parents Jim and Linda Batten. It mixes the boundaries of live performance, “home videos,” stand-up, as well as a smattering of song and dance, without any traditional fourth wall. There is absurdism galore. In one captivating scene, Batten reprises one of her many childhood “animal” theater roles: she puts an audience member on a long-distance phone call to Australia to role-play a monologue; all the while Batten stares at him, drinking her native Foster’s beer underneath an animal mask.
This is the first US performance of this award-winning Australian play and Batten is loaded with talent, absurdly comfortable on stage, and despite her deceptive ease (there is a hidden structure to the most informal of her audience participation points), she delivers a highly complex performance. And while the presence of her father on stage offers a measure of comfort at first (he is a huggable, good-willed type), things lose some steam with his choppy transitions and hammy jokes.
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Rawson Vint, Joe Dempsey, Dina Walters, Ryan Walters, Rani Waterman/ Photo: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent
An unexpectedly satisfying pleasure of The Neo-Futurists’ “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” which opened on Saturday night at the Neo-Futurarium, is the piece’s nerdy laundry list of presidential factoids. Frequently presented in the form of absurd actual quotes (indicated by helpful and sarcastic “Direct Quote” light-up signage), nearly all of the nifty information is shrouded in justified negativity. In middle school, we had to memorize the formidable roster of Commanders-in-Chief by name, but unfortunately not by deed. And watching so many of those disconcerting deeds play out—as presidential reasoning transitions from Manifest Destiny to electorate-decided mandate—can prove rather gruesome. But that’s the oft-ignored reality of America’s tumultuous adolescence. This great experiment ain’t always been so squeaky clean.
In this second edition of the Neo-Futurists’ oddball living textbook, the history cram-session is jarring and unfamiliar to an audience exhausted from Barack and Mitt’s stump speeches proclaiming the sacred premise of retreating to a brighter past—be it Clintonian or Reaganian. Well, “44 Plays” says perhaps the past wasn’t so spotless, after all. Through the years, the United States has seen government-sanctioned genocides, periods of eighteen-percent unemployment, weapons sales to would-be enemies, a Civil War killing two-percent of the population, and a seemingly endless parade of other unthinkable atrocities. The hall of presidents is, more or less, a historical house of horrors. Yet somehow those bonkers Neo-Futurists pack their evening full of uproarious satire and, even more remarkably, resonating poignancy. Read the rest of this entry »
THE NEO-FUTURISTS ANNOUNCE THEIR 24th SEASON OF ORIGINAL WORK
CHICAGO – The Neo-Futurists announce their 24th season to include 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, part of a nation-wide festival curated by Andy Bayiates, Analog by Kurt Chiang, and The Miss Neo-Futurist Pageant by Megan Mercier. Also on the books is another great year of the smash hit, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s the press release from the Neo-Futurists:
THE NEO-FUTURISTS ANNOUNCE THEIR 23rd SEASON
OF ORIGINAL WORK
CHICAGO – The Neo-Futurists announce their 23rd season to include Chalk and Saltwater: The Ladder Project by John Pierson, Burning Bluebeard by Jay Torrence, and The Strange and Terrible True Story of Pinocchio (the wooden boy) as Told by Frankenstein’s Monster (the wretched creature) by Greg Allen. Also on the books is another great year of the smash hit, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. Read the rest of this entry »
By Erin Kelsey
The first time Jay Torrence ever heard a man say he was gay was during a performance of The Neo-Futurists’ “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” (TML) when he was in college. “It was really affirming for me to hear personal stories from their lives about how it felt to be gay in the eighties.” he says. Torrence joined the Neo-Futurists ensemble in 2002, and has since contributed his own personal stories on LGBTQ issues. This year, Torrence and fellow ensemble member Megan Mercier were responsible for curating the yearly Pride themed TML, called “30 Queer Plays in 60 Straight Minutes,” which performs this weekend.
While to the audience member the Pride show may seem very similar to TML, creating the show is a very different experience for the Neo-Futurists. Typically, TML performances change from week to week as ensemble members add new two-minute pieces to the “menu” of those to be performed. For the Pride show, the curators tailor the menu to the audience. “We balance our topics and tones,” Torrence says. “We go through our archives and see what we have from that year, and sometimes go back even further.” While many pieces selected originally featured homosexual themes, the curators are willing to experiment. “Sometimes,” Torrence says, “we approach the menu and look for heterosexual topics and then gender-bend them.” This process—similar to how they create their touring shows—results in a menu of their strongest material. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Andrew Collings
This summer, the Neo-Futurists will once again produce their annual staged-reading series of terrible films. This year, “Film Fest IX: The Perils of the Neo-Futurarium,” was put together by Bilal Dardai and Megan Mercier.
“We try not to engage in any overt mockery but really just to show the script for what it is,” Dardai says, explaining that he doesn’t want the performance to be trying too hard but rather just to expose the humor that already exists within the script.
“The fact that it’s the ninth year is a testament to the festival’s success,” he says. “We never just perform the movie verbatim; the point is what we can do with it on stage.” Read the rest of this entry »
Jeremy Sher and Caitlin Stainken/Photo: Greg Allen
Susan Sontag, in her seminal essays published in the early seventies in “On Photography,” observed that “ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it…”. And this was long before digital cameras, camera phones, photos on Facebook, sharing photos with Flickr—before photos everywhere, all the time. If life, now more than ever, is merely a series of photo ops, the promise of The Neo-Futurists’ “I Am A Camera,” especially given its populist title, seemed especially timely. (As far as I can tell, this production has nothing to do with the John van Druten play of the same name, which was made into a film and later was the basis for “Cabaret.”)
Vintage family photos flash on slides projected on a screen while patrons take seats in the theater, conveying a simple but powerful promise. I have no idea who these people are, but somehow they evoke my life, my family, a “Family of Man” reminder of all our basic similarities. This opening montage also clues us in that we’re not going to be exploring the meanings and ramifications of today’s pervasive photo-culture, alas. In fact, almost nothing in this show could not have been done at the time of Sontag’s book. Read the rest of this entry »
Tara DeFrancisco, No. 36
In this town of performers—theater makers, dancers, comedy creators—you’d think it’d be pretty easy to assemble a list of artistic influencers and innovators. And it is. The challenge is paring that list down to a mere fifty. It’s a testament to the wonders of the performing-arts culture in Chicago that we easily came up with about 200 names when we set out to create this year’s version of The Players. Unfortunately, we’re only listing a fraction of those worthy of your attention, but that’s the problem with an abundance of riches. Hopefully you’ll see a handful of recognizable names and a whole lot more you’ll start noticing from this point on. We’ve retooled the criteria for this year, focusing on onstage artistic achievement, rather than the backstage influence of artistic directors, executive directors and the like—who will get their day again next year. Let the arguments begin. Read the rest of this entry »