Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?/Second City e.t.c.

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows 1 Comment »
(l to r) Lisa Beasley, Tim Ryder, Carisa Barreca, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Eddie Mujica and Scott Morehead/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Lisa Beasley, Tim Ryder, Carisa Barreca, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Eddie Mujica and Scott Morehead/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

Satire works best when it has enough of a bite that even those laughing can feel the teeth marks. Too gentle and the jokes just feel safe and congratulatory for those in agreement, but too much and it’s hard to keep laughing. This narrow playing space is what keeps a lot of sketch stuck in the relative safety of an inoffensive nonsense land (where, to be fair, some of the funniest concepts and characters live and flourish—not everything needs to have a point). Still, Chicago audiences are lucky that the cast members of “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?”—a slow build of a revue that starts out a bit flat and rises to some impressive peaks—know exactly when and how to push things for the sake of comedy serving as a message delivery system.

To be clear, “Soul Brother” nails some easy targets (and nails them well): the NFL’s record (or lack thereof) of supporting their players, Scientology, the George Lucas museum. But it also delves into much headier territory with equally funny aplomb: remembering 9/11, the dark underbelly of the sex trade, words white people can say that black people can’t, laws based on religious beliefs. And, surprisingly, there’s even a wordless sketch that hits many of the same emotional high-points as the legendary intro to “Up,” delivering more of a gut-punch than a punchline. Across the board, this is very smart, intentional writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

-News etc., Players 50 4 Comments »

joe-mazza-brave-lux-chicago-newcity-players-50-0032

The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Second City’s Holidazed and Confused Revue/Second City

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(l to r) John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli

John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli

RECOMMENDED

There’s an internal tension with the holiday season between what everyone is supposed to feel—joyous, thankful and free—and how everyone actually feels—miserable, stressed-out and massively in debt. Whether it’s binge-eating on seasonally appropriate chocolates, comparing holiday bonuses, fretting about the inevitable failure of New Year’s resolutions or questioning the very theological basis on which the whole “Christmas” thing is conceived, people deal with this tension in different ways. And most of those ways are not very healthy. If there is a thematic backbone to Second City’s “Holidazed and Confused,” these myriad splinterings of the holiday cheer façade is it. (The thematic backbone is distinct from the business-side backbone which is, quite simply: “Holidays + Comedy = $$$.”)

Performed in the intimate app-and-a-nightcap environs of the UP Comedy Club, “Holidazed and Confused” is the standard Second City cocktail of sketch, improv and music. The material is consistent overall even if the quality is not totally homogenous; there are equal parts surprise and obviousness mixed in with a whole lot of solid work. There are jokes about Ebola and Tinder and pumpkin spice lattes and even one about Ferguson (which… yeah) and there are some very charming bits of audience interaction. Which reminds me, if you are planning on giving someone you love a gift card this holiday season, do not tell them that. They will make fun of you. In song. And everyone will laugh. Because it will be very funny. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Panic on Cloud 9/Second City

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(l to r) Chelsea Devantez, Paul Jurewicz, Emily Walker and Christine Tawfik

Chelsea Devantez, Paul Jurewicz, Emily Walker and Christine Tawfik/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

As the title suggests, the writer/performers of this 103rd Second City Mainstage revue don’t just throw bits together based on recent headlines, they very carefully string them together to highlight the unending stream of media-enhanced panic that most Americans have been subjected to in recent memory. Gun violence, disappearing airplanes, Ebola, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, bullying, hacked cloud storage… the list goes on. And perhaps there is cause for panic when even comedy oases are intentionally reminding you about all the shit that’s going down around you.

Luckily, this collection of sketches, directed by Second City stalwart Ryan Bernier, is calibrated to induce fits of laughter rather than panic attacks. And while there are a few unfortunate misses, the cast spends the majority of this two-hour show delivering hilarious hit after hit, with a few surprisingly emotional moments woven in for good measure. It’s worth noting that though the sketches flow together nicely, each new scene has a different vibe to it and, more so than any Second City revue I can remember, you can begin to pick up on the influences of various cast members (assuming they’re writing the scenes they’re in). Read the rest of this entry »

Not Getting Lost: Stage 773 Finds its Place in Chicago’s Theater Training Center Explosion

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Stage 773 Clubhouse Ensemble Training/Photo: Michael Courier

Stage 773 Clubhouse Ensemble Training/Photo: Michael Courier

By Sean Kelley

In the world of American acting, fame and fortune are to be found on the coasts in Los Angeles and New York. However, many of America’s most successful actors and comedians come to Chicago to make their bones before making a go at the Big Apple or Hollywood. Chicago’s theater scene is full of young performers looking to learn their trade and beef up their resumes. It should come as no surprise then that Chicago is also home to some of America’s foremost training centers for acting and comedy. The School at Steppenwolf regularly turns out actors who may be the next Joan Allen or John Malkovich. Second City and iO Chicago churn out Tina Feys and Stephen Colberts like clockwork. Sure, find fame and glory on the coasts, but if you want to become a great performer, come to Chicago first.

Chicago has spent decades fomenting its place as a theatrical hub, but in recent years things seem to have really taken off. Chicago’s performance training centers are experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Vaunted Chicago institutions are expanding dramatically (as theaters are apt to do). The Annoyance Theatre recently moved into a brand new space overlooking Clark Street. Second City is expanding in Pipers Alley and, of course, Charna Halpern’s iO Chicago has moved into a gorgeous new space on Kingsbury Street. Annoyance, iO and Second City expanded to accommodate the ever-growing multitudes of eager young performers looking to take their stages and classrooms. Each of these theaters has been around the block and earned the reputation that brings actors from the world over to their doors. But it is not just the old warhorses that have benefited from the legions looking to learn. In addition to these established institutions, there are several new kids on the block looking to help guide the next generation of performers. One of them is Stage 773. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Apes of Wrath/Second City e.t.c.

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(l-r) Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and
Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

“That’s cool as hell!” declares an enthralled pre-recorded voice, breaking away from his own faux deep thoughts about the universe, as the six-person cast of “Apes of Wrath”—the latest revue to hit the Second City e.t.c. stage—holds multicolored balls of light in front of themselves on a darkened stage. This is a near-perfect introduction to the introspective-yet-easily-distractible theme that runs through this production and, if we’re being honest, through most of our internet-connected brains: on one hand we want to be thoughtful and reflective, but on the other… ALL THE THINGS! ALL THE TIME!

Sure there have always been distractions, but it seems that in the last decade, the distractions have just been getting exponentially more impressive, more easily accessible and more instantly forgettable by the day. Notably, the first sketch of the night features a group of writers at BuzzFeed (now that “newspapers are no longer a thing”) teaching a new trainee the ropes of creating engaging content. BuzzFeed’s an easy target for confronting our microsecond attention-spans, but the cast (who are also the writers of the show) nail it without being blatant. And that’s what makes the majority of this two-act show work so well: even when addressing familiar topics, they find a new way in. Read the rest of this entry »

Every Theater Deserves a House: The Story of a Backyard Theater

-News etc., Profiles 1 Comment »
Photo: Ryan Bourque

Photo: Ryan Bourque

By Sean Kelley

In a city with such an established and vibrant theater scene, there are many institutions that could easily make the case that the beating heart of Chicago theater lies within their walls. Is Chicago theater’s heart on the stage of Steppenwolf, one of the nation’s most successful theater companies, the home stage of Malkovich, Allen, Sinise and all the rest? Is it sitting in the balconies of the theater district in the Loop watching “Book of Mormon” or “Wicked” as they make their way through town before moving westward on their trek from Broadway to the Pacific Ocean? Is it in one of our venerated improv comedy theaters like Second City or iO Chicago taking a suggestion before pulling a comedic play out of the ether? Or is it in one of Chicago’s many small storefront theaters, striving to grow and put something truly new into the world?

All of these places are part of the body of Chicago theater. They are her hands and bones and eyes and teeth. The heart though? The heart of Chicago theater? That’s the 3031 stage in John Wilson’s backyard. Read the rest of this entry »

30 Plays, 60 Minutes, 25 Years: A Quarter Century of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”

-News etc., Profiles, Theater 1 Comment »

By Hugh Iglarsh

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

“What are the hallmarks of American culture that are also typical of ADD? The fast pace. The sound bite. The bottom line. Short takes, quick cuts … High stimulation. Restlessness … Speed. Present-centered, no future, no past.”
—Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, “Driven to Distraction”

At this point—after twenty-five unbroken years of performance in Chicago, of two generations of sell-out crowds, of untold thousands of two-minute sketches and hundreds of actor-writers, of spinoffs and Edinburgh Festivals and Hear ye-Hear ye civic proclamations—it is fair to say Greg Allen’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” is more than an institution; it is a movement.

Allen and his cohorts have made their “neo-futurism” a hot commodity, spawning affiliated groups everywhere from San Francisco to Montreal, and developing into a perpetual motion theater machine, whose unique rituals of admission and spectatorship turn play-going into a kind of collaborative performance art. Neo-futurism is arguably the biggest, most durable entrant on the local scene since Second City began improvising fifty-some years ago. And like Second City, “Too Much Light” (hereafter TML) has created a precise and endlessly repeatable formula for achieving a tightly engineered spontaneity. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Depraved New World/Second City

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

John Hartman, Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, Steve Waltien/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

John Hartman, Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, Steve Waltien/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Though you can almost always count on Second City revues to deliver plenty of laughs, thematic consistency isn’t quite as reliable. “Depraved New World”—the 102nd revue to grace the main stage—manages both without short-changing either. And that consistent theme isn’t depravity—though there’s enough of that sprinkled throughout to justify the title. It’s a bit deeper than that. Under the direction of Mick Napier, the cast members of “Depraved New World” (who are also the writers) explore the internal struggle we all go through regarding our own insecurities, shortcomings and frustrations.

This concept is introduced in a song that finds various characters being confronted by their inner voices berating them for telling a stupid joke or asking a stupid question or just not making good enough brownies: in short, for being human. “Does everyone feel this way?” wonders one character after receiving an upbraiding by a nagging inner voice. And the unspoken answer is, “Of course.” Not feeling up to snuff is a universal theme that is instantly relatable to all. It also provides plenty of fodder for laughs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 5 Comments »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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