Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

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“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 »

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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 4 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 »

Sketchy City: Chicago Sketchfest Brings a Thousand Performers to its Stages

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Siblings of Doctors

Siblings of Doctors

By Michael Mellini

A single sinner navigating heaven’s dating scene, video tributes to Janet Jackson’s greatest hits, a fundraiser to crush Chicago’s rising murder rate, a frazzled Mary Todd Lincoln taking on variety-show host duties: these are only a few of the offbeat setups invading Stage 773 when the annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival hits the Lakeview venue beginning January 9. Now in its thirteenth year, the country’s biggest sketch fest will host 150 comedy troupes showcasing their best material throughout the eight-night run.

“The lineup is exceptional this year,” says festival creative director Brian Posen. “Not that it hasn’t been in the past years, but we had to turn away really good talent, about 150 troupes, because we just didn’t have the room.” Although some groups from previous years are on the roster again, Posen assures that no year of the festival ever feels the same. “The festival always recreates itself,” he says. “Sketch comedy groups rarely last more than a couple years, so there’s a constant rebirthing of new and exciting groups. When any art form grows, whatever the norm is, [artists] must break it, so it’s very exciting as a sketch geek to see how performers are changing the norm and how material is presented differently.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Old Jews Telling Jokes/The Royal George Theatre

-News etc., Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows 2 Comments »
(l to r)Alex Goodrich, Dara Cameron, Renee Matthews, Tim Kazurinsky/Photo by Dan Rest

(l to r) Alex Goodrich, Dara Cameron, Renee Matthews, Tim Kazurinsky/Photo: Dan Rest

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Talk about high-concept. If you can’t gather what this show is about based on the title… what kind of a dumb schmuck are you? Based on the popular website OldJewsTellingJokes.com (guess what’s on the website), the original production of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” just closed in the middle of last month after running for almost a year and a half Off-Broadway before opening in Chicago at the Royal George Theatre with plans to run through mid-February of next year. And this goyim loves it.

Though the concept and presentation are blatantly Jewish (even the program looks like a deli menu while the logo is a monstrous pastrami sandwich with a gherkin perched on top of it) the main conceit here is just to throw out as many jokes as possible (along with a few song-and-dance numbers and some brief monologues) and keep the laughs coming. Stripped down, this show really isn’t much more than a long series of jokes: puns, one-liners, anecdotes and stories. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You: A Chicago Revue/Second City

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
Brianna Baker and Shad Kunkle/Photo by Samual Roberson

Brianna Baker and Shad Kunkle/Photo by Samual Roberson

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As a sketch toward the end of this gentle send-up of Chicago makes clear (with a self-referential punchline), Second City has been making audiences laugh (and casting directors take note) since 1959. And “What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You” is not so much a standalone revue as it is a “best-of” collection of sketches about Chicago from the last five decades or so of revues—which means they have a lot of material to choose from.

References are made to both the current and previous mayors (the former gets some quick sketches while the latter gets an entire song), potholes on Lake Shore Drive, Wrigleyville, da Bears and da Bean, among other Chicago notables. Still, the focus is always more on comedy than Chicago and even non-Chicagoans should have no trouble following along with the cracks and one-liners. They might even learn a thing or two about Chicago that the tour guide may, in fact, have neglected to mention; the out-of-towners I went with asked me afterward, “So, Lincoln Park is a snooty neighborhood?” Point made, Second City. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Clown Car Named Desire/Second City e.t.c.

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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There is a sketch early on in the second act of “A Clown Car Named Desire” that starts out seeming like your standard hipster-mocking (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a good hipster-mocking?), but then it ever-so-slowly and subtly morphs into what has to be one of the funniest sketches the e.t.c. stage has hosted in its illustrious history (“Clown Car” marks the stage’s thirty-seventh revue).

It takes place in an American Apparel, where two employees (Mike Kosinski and Brooke Breit) indifferently greet a customer (Chris Witaske) only to discover that he also works at American Apparel. The trio then begin an epic marathon of idle one-upmanship and “top that,” while languidly pacing the stage, attempting to look unimpressed with each other and using as little energy as possible to speak (Breit declares her hate for a four-legged adversary in one breath: “ifuckenhatethatgoat”). At one point Witaske, sporting a fanny pack and colorful tights, declares “I’m exactly where I want to be for a thirty-five-year old man.” And we believe it. Both for Witaske and for his character. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Second City Guide to the Opera/Second City and Lyric Opera

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues No Comments »
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The pre-show music for Lyric Opera shows don’t typically include selections from Deltron 3030. And you can’t usually order mixed drinks with clever names like The Boozy Baritone or The Icy Maestro from the comfort of your seat (on the stage). And, most notably, it’s certainly not common practice for an usher to say, “Welcome to Second City” as you walk down the aisles of the expansive Civic Opera House to find your seat.

That’s because this isn’t a Lyric Opera show. Not exactly. It’s “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” a month-long run of an opera-themed Second City revue based on the sold-out one-night show of the same name that played the Civic Opera House in January, announcing the unlikely pairing of two very different Chicago stalwarts: the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Second City. And though this reincarnation doesn’t feature special celebrity guest artists Patrick Stewart and Renée Fleming, it’s still a unique experience. Read the rest of this entry »