Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind/The Neo-Futurists

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Friday night with thirty minutes to go before the doors to the Neo-Futurarium open, a line already snakes down Ashland and around the corner onto Foster. With patrons ranging from traditional theater-types to bros to hipsters and various types in between, it’s readily apparent that “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” (TML from here on)—the longest-running production in Chicago, which recently celebrated a twenty-fifth anniversary—is still drawing in crowds and then shaking them up in the Neo-Futurists’ signature style.

Many know what to expect from the sometimes hectic, rapid-fire “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” structure of TML because they’ve seen it before and many more have only heard secondhand what they’re in for when attending this unique production. After entering the theater, audience members are promptly given a “menu” which lists the name of thirty individual plays, each with a unique number before it. In order to move the show along, audience members are asked to yell the number of the show they’d like to see next in the moments immediately following the end of the previous play. This results in an excited barrage of numbers being shouted from all corners of the audience in between each vignette and serves to not only jolt the audience but to amp up the action on stage as well.

With titles like “The One Time I Didn’t Hate Kids.” and “I don’t need any help.” these brief plays range from sight gags to physical comedy to one-liners to occasional forays into the deeper aspects of the human condition. Each delivers in its own way—though the quirky comedic bits tend to work best, especially when coupled with a more oblique reference to emotional implications. 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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Big Bouffonery: Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival Balances Art and Entertainment

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Muualla1_Chiara_ContrinoBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

The release reads, “First of its kind in the U.S., the 2014 Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival brings shows from around the world together January 6th through 12th.”

If, like me, you are not the type to enjoy clowns and dancing elephants, make sure you read further; this is not your average big-top, “shiny shoe” circus. This is the circus peculiar to much of Europe, Quebec and a slow trickle in the United States, a circus unlike that of Vegas’ “Cirque du Soleil”—it is innovative, small, plucky and growing steam.

Curated by Matt Roben and Shayna Swanson, two mightily seasoned performers in their own circus-y rights, the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival is the nation’s first contemporary circus festival. The focus of contemporary circus is to create artistically insightful and emotionally affecting work, such as one-man contortionist acts or late-night cabaret mime. This circus has existed in Chicago for years, but never has such a streamlined attempt been made to make the City of Big Shoulders THE city for circus; as Roben puts it, the festival is an attempt to make Chicago “the epicenter of circus for the United States.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Burning Bluebeard/The Ruffians

Christmas, Holiday, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo by Evan Hanover.

Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover

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“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 »

Playing With Fire: The Ruffians’ “Burning Bluebeard” Rises Again

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(l to r) Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo by Evan Hanover.

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 »

Review: Sweet Child of Mine/The Neo-Futurists and The Last Tuesday Society

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Bron Batten and Jim Batten/Photo by Max Milne

Bron Batten and Jim Batten/Photo: Max Milne

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“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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Review: 44 Plays for 44 Presidents/Neo-Futurists

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Rawson Vint, Joe Dempsey, Dina Walters, Ryan Walters, Rani Waterman/ Photo: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

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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 2012-2013 season

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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 »

The Neo-Futurists announce 2011-2012 season

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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 »

Neo-Futuristic Pride: How “30 Queer Plays in 60 Straight Minutes” comes together

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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 »