Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Pirates of Penzance/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Kate Carson-Groner, Erik Schroeder, Matt Kahler  and Dana Omar/Photo: Evan Hanover

Kate Carson-Groner, Erik Schroeder, Matt Kahler and Dana Omar/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

I’m not the first to say this, and I certainly won’t be the last: Go to The Hypocrites’ revival of their 2010 staging of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Don’t be put off by their unprepossessing new location. Yes, the unfinished theater still looks like what it was: a furniture-store showroom. Yes, to a first-time customer, casualness and laissez-faire seem to be the order of the day. But don’t be fooled by the atmosphere of whimsy, friendliness, anarchy and chaos that envelops you at the theater entrance. It’s all been carefully calculated to sweep your mind clean of stale preconceptions about Gilbert and Sullivan and Victorian theater.

This production of “Pirates” is as tightly and artistically controlled, as professionally faultless an affair as you will see anywhere. After much consideration, I say this categorically: artistic director Sean Graney, the man who fomented this seeming rout and disorder, is an amazing artist. There is method—and cunning, brilliant, astonishing insight—in his madness. Graney wants to convert you to his utter delight and belief in Gilbert and Sullivan as important thinkers and determined social reformers. He succeeds. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

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The problem that any company encounters when producing “The Mikado” is—to put it bluntly—it’s kinda sorta maybe pretty undeniably racist. And as it is a show set in Japan that was written by a pair of middle-aged British guys during the height of the Victorian Empire—neither of whom had ever been to Japan—its racial insensitivity is unsurprising. Despite all of this, “The Mikado” has not only managed to survive, but has downright thrived in the century-plus since its inception. It has done so because from the music to the lyrics to the book, the show is a fantastic piece of musical comedy. And yet, in production after production, there are still those moments where audiences squirm in their seats and look askance. Both theater artists and audiences have trouble reconciling their desire for Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterful artistry with the fact that they then have to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan’s stupid, ill-informed racism. It’s a pickle for sure.

Thankfully Sean Graney has rolled into town with his patented pickle-solving machine. Having made a career as a kind of theatrical necromancer, taking dead classical texts and reviving them to make them dance anew, Graney is perfectly suited to the task. And in the end, the answer was deceptively simple: Graney got rid of the racism by just kind of ignoring it. He took the show, which is currently running as a part of The Hypocrites “Gilbert and Sullivan Rep,” and he set it in a circus. There are polka-dot dresses, red-banded stockings and bright-green suspenders by the dozen with nary a kimono in sight. Additionally, he took Gilbert and Sullivan’s ornate, occasionally Orientalist score and reconstructed it for a motley assortment of guitars, accordions and banjos. Other than occasional mentions that the story is set in Japan, one would never know that the characters were meant to be a British person’s idea of a Japanese person. Instead they seem like what they really are: a British person’s idea of another, much sillier British person. I have no idea if this was Graney’s idea when he set out to adapt the piece, but it works. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: H.M.S. Pinafore/The Hypocrites

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(top) Erik Schroeder with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

Erik Schroeder (top) with Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

First, he turned “Pirates of Penzance” into a beach-bum sing-along. Next, he took “The Mikado” and made a three-ring circus with all three rings overlapping, like a Venn diagram. And now, Sean Graney has arrived at the inevitable: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” This time around he has picked a theme that perhaps best encapsulates his madmen-running-the-madhouse promenade style, turning the whole thing into a slumber party. What does a slumber party have to do with a show about the Victorian-era British Navy, you might ask?

From what I can tell, slumber parties have as much to do with the British Navy as the Shogun’s Japan has to do with PT Barnum and high seas profiteering has to do with Jimmy Buffett. That is to say, not a whole heck of a lot. And yet these three shows, currently running in rep at The Den Theatre’s new ground-floor space, all feel exactly right. They aren’t strict adaptations, and “H.M.S. Pinafore” is especially generous with the chopping and the splicing and the devil-may-care-but-we-sure-as-heck-don’t textural additions. They are re-imaginings. Graney has actually gone and broken these operettas down into their component parts and then built them back up again according to his own crazed design. “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a slumber party because Sean Graney’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” feels like a slumber party. So nyeh! 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: 12 Nights/The Hypocrites

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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In his time, Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his comedies, were meant to entertain the masses. These early situational comedies (yes, sitcoms) were borderline interactive, with a small (all male) troupe playing multiple roles. The Hypocrites’ version of “Twelfth Night” (adapted and directed by Sean Graney and rechristened “12 Nights”) captures this ebullient Shakespearean spirit even as it strips down, modernizes and even mocks many of the original plot points.

Waiting in the lower lobby of the Chopin Theater, the audience is warmly greeted by the show’s energetic ensemble (Tien Doman, Christine Stulik, Zeke Sulkes and Jeff Trainor) before being ushered into a staging area that features free cookies, a disco ball, a chance to write on the walls with markers and some “great ’80s jams.” From this pre-show party those audience members with seats are invited to the actual set, a small section of astroturf surrounded by multi-colored lawn chairs, rainbow-striped walls and dangling air fresheners. The rest of the audience is then invited in to stand and watch from any available spot in the room. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sugarward/The Side Project

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Codrington DadSpeech“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” not to mention the much less holy head that governs in the name of the crown. I believe that little piece of Shakespearean wisdom sits at the core of Sean Graney’s new play “Sugarward,” which opened on Saturday night at The Side Project, but I cannot be entirely sure. Frankly, I am still somewhat perplexed as to the play’s plot, which is unbelievably convoluted and directionless for such an intimate, two-person (four-character) comedy-drama. The playwright’s laborious, heightened speech detailing a smattering of issues of eighteenth-century British imperialism—the morality of slavery, the limitations of the governorship, the Triangular Trade—is impossibly difficult to follow and hard to enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik, Matt Kahler, Dana Omar, Emily Casey/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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Following in the footsteps of its highly successful and innovative “Pirates of Penzance,” which is being revived and running in repertory alongside of this offering, the Hypocrites are once again turning to Gilbert & Sullivan this holiday season.

Those who only like their Gilbert & Sullivan served up with all of the trimmings, i.e., trained voices, full orchestrations, full chorus, et al, would be well-warned to stay away from Sean Graney’s musically minimalist version of either “Pirates of Penzance” or his newest G & S adaptation of the Victorian duo’s most famous work, “The Mikado.”

As with “Pirates,” Sullivan’s orchestrations are stripped down to the lowest-common-denominator guitar chords, largely strummed by the performers themselves hootenanny style, sometimes incorporating clarinet, banjo, mandolin, ukulele and accordion.

From the opening change of lyric from “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of this land” instead of “from Japan,” it is clear that the Japanese contours of the allegorical work are minimalized. And yet, the Victorian ambiance is retained by the characters having faux British accents and often singing in a highly stylized manner, cleverly making G & S performance traditions themselves part of what is satirized here. Read the rest of this entry »

All Greek to Him: Sean Graney Wrangles the Portfolio of the Tragic Trio into a 650-Page Mega-Play

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By Eric Shoemaker

Sean Graney was not content with “Seven Sicknesses.” It seems that his successful and now traveling adaptation of every Sophocles tragedy merely opened a can of worms—extremely long, bloody, cathartic worms. He wants to go bigger, up to the adaptation of every extant Attic Greek tragedy, to compose a two-part day-long epic event. The script, already read-through by a group of Graney loyals and at a whopping 650 pages, could be a masterwork. Or it could be a pain in the ass for the eternally seated audience.

I chatted with Chicago’s tragic laureate about his penchant for Grecian blood. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Equivocation/Victory Gardens Theater

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Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot… So begins the rhyme that commemorates the central event of Bill Cain’s immensely entertaining ode to art, politics and the perils of negotiating both. It’s a play about learning to lie honestly and artfully.

A past-his-prime “Shagspeare”(a reliably deadpan Marc Grapey) is approached by Sir Robert Cecil (a suitably poisonous Mark Montgomery) to write a drama about a current event, the foiled attempt by Catholic rebels to blow up Parliament. Shag is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game of political intrigue and in the process, discovers himself as a man, artist and father. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Fall of the House of Usher/The Hypocrites

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“Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher!” says the all-too-curious narrator as his eyes befall a boon friend, Roderick, in Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Reuniting with his pal, he observes, not only a change in Roderick’s demeanor, but a stunning physical transformation–a person familiar, but mysteriously altered. Perhaps “stunning” is not a strong enough word to describe the visitor’s initial impression of Mr. Usher in The Hypocrites’ new staging of the tale, however. For, in director Sean Graney’s hour-long adaptation, Usher is portrayed by a woman in top-hatted drag. Well, three women actually, in breathtaking rotation. Read the rest of this entry »