Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Qualms/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Karen Aldridge,  Keith Kupferer,  Arrington, Greg Stuhr,  Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Karen Aldridge, Keith Kupferer, Kate Arrington, Greg Stuhr, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Diane Davis/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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With the way that the phrase polyamory has been tossed around over the last few years you would think that modern social psychologists invented the concept. And according to a flurry of recent articles with titles like “Why Polyamory May Be The Answer To Your Dating Woes” and “There Is Life Outside Of Monogamy, And It Actually Works Amazingly Well” there are more and more people who seem to think that they—and perhaps their significant other(s)—would benefit from such arrangements. So Bruce Norris’ new play investigating “the lifestyle,” as a character calls it, enjoying its world premiere at Steppenwolf right now, seems right on time for the sexual zeitgeist.

Except his play is not about this hot topic, it’s about swingers. And though a character tosses the word “polyamory” out there in reference to their lifestyle at one point, it seems incongruous with their actions. For the record, while both involve open relationships, polyamory is the practice of being involved in multiple, ongoing, loving relationships, while swinging is essentially monogamy plus open sex. Since the setting for this show involves four distinct couples meeting for a sex party (from which they will all return to their separate homes), it seems that they fall firmly into the latter rather than the former. But then, maybe I’m wrong, the swingers here don’t get much time to discuss the specifics of their lifestyle. They’re mostly just being ranted at by the male half of an uneasy and on-edge new couple. Read the rest of this entry »

Poly Wants A Crackup: The Tension, and the Laughter, Explode in Steppenwolf’s “The Qualms”

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Qualms Reh_ -78

Bruce Norris and Kirsten Fitzgerald/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

When a sex comedy by a highly lauded playwright hits the Chicago stage, I get the call from Newcity to devise the sort of feature you just started reading. Seems this paper thinks all I care about is getting laughs and getting off. How obvious I must be.

Obvious ain’t a word I’d use to describe “The Qualms” by Bruce Norris, now in its world-premiere production at Steppenwolf. The show presents what is for most viewers a specifically unfamiliar social setting within what are generally very recognizable trappings. That is to say: it’s a swingers party, but after all it’s just a party. With much hilarity the play offers insight into our ridiculous human habit of trying to enjoy the company of others while maintaining an individual sense of righteousness, or at least control.

Before catching the show a few days later, I speak with Norris by phone. I start with a question firmly on both rails of my two-track mind: What’s inherently funnier, polyamory or monogamy?

“What’s inherently funnier is discomfort,” replies Norris. “Whichever one you’re more uncomfortable with is funnier. For American society at large, obviously polyamory is funnier than monogamy. Monogamy is held up as somehow sacred. And people who are in polyamorous communities are looked at as kinda ridiculous. It’s something I always wonder about: I’m anti-utopian but if we could actually not bring our fears and jealousies and possessiveness to relationships, wouldn’t that somehow be good?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: This Is Our Youth/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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The living space created for Steppenwolf’s intimate upstairs staging of this Kenneth Lonergan play is so cozy and lived-in that while heading toward my seat I was tempted to instead plop down centerstage and put that copy of my favorite Frank Zappa bootleg on the turntable and make myself at home. Alas, like an obedient non-participant I went up to my assigned seat for this Broadway-bound revival and considered how to dissect the expected.

Expected, but entertaining and rewarding—that’s Lonergan’s script. I can’t fathom it was any more revelatory when it debuted in the mid-nineties, but I also doubt any of its emotional impact has waned in the intervening years. There are plenty of laughs as well. To deliver so much humor and heart with nary an unexpected twist is the mark of some solid wordplay.

The wayward privileged young trio here at the dawn of the ghastly, cutthroat Reagan era seem to have all the cynicism, disappointment, antagonism and dread of their crushed and cruel unseen parents without the distant pleasure of having ever experienced the Boomers’ glorious delusions of hope. Rather, there’s a specter of death that hangs heavier as the show moves along. Drug-dealing Dennis (a fantastically scene-stealing Kieran Culkin) fears being too much like his cancer-stricken, henpecked father. (It’s likely not a coincidence that it’s prostate cancer, the same disease that killed the show’s musical touchstone Zappa.) Yet in his healthy youth he’s much as he describes his father in his prime—a headstrong, confident star at the center of his milieu. It’s just that his father was an art star and Denny shines as dope connection to other well-to-do New York kids. Denny also dreads the possibly imagined homicidal wrath of his pal’s father, a fearsome lingerie magnate. His pal Warren (Michael Cera, increasingly intriguing as the night goes on) idolizes Dennis and shrinks in his presence for much of the first act. More morbidly we also learn, from one of Denny’s limitless withering attacks on Warren’s character, that Warren is haunted by his own sister’s murder. There’s yet further death ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

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Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff, Deirdre O’Connell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Late in the second act of playwright Mona Mansour’s marvelous “The Way West,” a pizza-delivery guy gets into a tussle over declined credit cards with the play’s protagonists and exclaims, “At least I’m solvent!” It’s one of those wonderfully terrible moments in the theater, when the truth slices like a lawnmower gone amok, taking out not only the subjects of the insult as well as its deliverer, who’s just admitted that he’s thirty-three years old and has lost his “real” job, but also us, the audience, as we realize how trivial our American life has become, where we measure our self-worth and sense of accomplishment on whether we pay our credit card bills on time, on whether we’re solvent.

Few things create more stress in marriages, in families, in life than money and the lack thereof, yet our theater so rarely addresses commonplace financial matters, preferring instead to kick around the more easily dramatic, if far less universal, arcs of corruption, fraud and theft. This simultaneous freshness and familiarity of subject make this world-premiere production especially compelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Russian Transport/Steppenwolf

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(top to bottom) Aaron Himelstein, Alan Wilder and Melanie Neilan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

(top to bottom) Aaron Himelstein, Alan Wilder and Melanie Neilan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Like “Tribes,” which recently closed at Steppenwolf, this production centers around a tight-knit family whose precariously balanced levels of love and annoyance with each other are thrown for a loop when a new member is introduced into their ranks. In “Tribes” it was Sylvia, a well-meaning girlfriend who pushed the deaf Billy to want more from his life and his family, and in “Russian Transport” it is Boris, a not-so-well-meaning brother of the family matriarch who pushes his nephew to want more than a completely legal job supporting his family.

Playwright Erika Sheffer’s dialogue (a mix of Russian and English) has a nice flow to it, mixing comedy with drama and the heavy topic of international sex trafficking, but under Yasen Peyankov’s direction, the show moves at such a languid pace that in its almost two-and-a-half-hour running time there’s hardly a moment of true suspense or genuine comedy. We can see where this is headed early on when Boris (a cool Tim Hopper, handling a potentially caricatural role with aplomb) arrives in New York from Russia to stay with the family of his sister Diana (a miscast Mariann Mayberry). 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: Tribes/Steppenwolf

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Alana Arenas and John McGinty/Photo by Michael Brosilow

Alana Arenas and John McGinty/Photo: Michael Brosilow

In a fractious family that consists of a boorish father (Francis Guinan, on a roll) and a sweet but shrill mother (an endearingly neurotic Molly Regan) who are both writers, a pretentious and schizophrenic brother who’s working on a thesis about the shortcomings of language (a manic and constantly engaging Steve Haggard) and a self-indulgent sister with designs on becoming an opera singer (the Keira Knightley-ish Helen Sadler), Billy (John McGinty, gentle and patient) serves as the grounded sibling that holds the family together and listens as each of his egocentric family members expounds, exults or expostulates. And Billy is deaf. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Wheel/Steppenwolf

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Joan Allen, center, with Daniel Pass and Emma Gordon

Joan Allen, center, with Daniel Pass and Emma Gordon/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Pre-curtain and offstage, singing guitarists make music, setting the tone for a play that opens on a pastoral setting of two nineteenth-century Spanish peasants, two sisters on one’s wedding day. They prepare for the big occasion and converse over the trivial matters of everyday life that consume so much of our existence. It’s all very bucolic until a soldier abruptly appears and aggressively asserts himself. At first gradually and soon completely, the most conventional of human lives gives way to the absurd theater of war. The older sister, Beatriz (Joan Allen, back at Steppenwolf for the first time in more than twenty years), reluctantly gathers war “orphans” and embarks on an odyssey to reunite one of them with its father. Fans of narrative get lost about here, as the journey enters the realm of magic realism and begins to resemble a dark dreamscape, an odyssey across time, place and history, from war to war, a litany of one horror after another, until she returns, full circle, to the beginning. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, in other words.

Never dull under Tina Landau’s direction, the pleasure in this work lies in the layers and layers of references, allusions and metaphors that shape the journey, many drawing from Western history, from religion and mythology. At times the proceedings resemble a Greek tragedy with really foul language. Brecht fans will find resonances. Other times Fellini’s “8 1/2″ comes to mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Slowgirl/Steppenwolf Theatre

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Rae Gray and William Petersen/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Rae Gray and William Petersen/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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When does a wrongdoing become the past?

More narrowly, how long does it take for a wrongdoing to transition into a mistake? Is the difference between a mistake and an accident an argument of semantics or a protective distinction? Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl” at Steppenwolf Theatre puts two extreme mistake-makers, and very different people, together in the Costa Rican jungle: a seventeen-year-old girl named Becky (Rae Gray) and her awkward uncle (and godfather), Sterling (William Petersen).
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Review: Belleville/Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Belleville means “beautiful town.” It’s a neighborhood in Paris that, through its naïve moniker, comes to represent the entire fairy-tale French city. Paris is, without question, a beautiful town. But we temporary inhabitants—foreign day-trippers, students, interns—can easily forget the urban realities of the places we jet to. We dream our vacation would last a lifetime, lounging in perpetual bliss. After all, the book isn’t called “Eat, Pray, Love, Work.” But when the rent check arrives, does the romance depart?

That small reality check is only an inkling of what Amy Herzog’s “Belleville,” a stark examination of love amidst perceived obligation, is all about. Receiving a heart-stopping Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, her excellent thriller provides solace and worry in equal measure by instilling that the most fearsome parts of life are often the most ho-hum. Such daily horrors are reflected in her anecdotal and observational dialogue: “You’re shivering. You’re not shivering, but you’re shivering.” And it’s apparent in the moments that make you jump: a crying baby, a ringing cellphone, the cutting of baguette. For a while, after we meet the couple, we’re convinced that a serial kidnapper might swoop in through the upstage French doors or a psychological-supernatural intervention à la Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” might come to pass. But “Belleville”’s perils are purely homey.
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