Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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

RECOMMENDED

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

RECOMMENDED

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

RECOMMENDED

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

RECOMMENDED

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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Review: Head of Passes/Steppenwolf Theatre

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Look at the Head of Passes on a map and you’re not likely to think of it as a place to set up a bed and breakfast. A no-man’s land of bayous and marshes sticking out into the Gulf of Mexico just southeast of New Orleans, a person would have to have a lot of faith to venture out there, let alone intentionally set up a house and an entire life. Luckily, faith is exactly what Shelah (a stand-in for the biblical Job, powerfully portrayed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has by the bucketload in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Book of Job-inspired new play, “Head of Passes,” now receiving a world premiere on Steppenwolf’s mainstage. And as with Job, her strong faith will be repeatedly put to the test as tragedy after tragedy befalls her.

As the show opens, we hear the sound of blowing wind and see a string of flickering lights. After a strong gust, a single bulb in the middle of the string burns out before slowly coming back to life and eventually burning brighter than the others. This simple but important opening segment is not only a subtle preview of the design wizardry David Gallo’s incredible set has yet to reveal (coordinated with Scott Zielinski’s impeccable lighting design), but, more importantly, a hint at the emotional arc to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Birthday Party/Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” It’s a simple enough question and there are any number of suitable punchlines. But when this trivial setup-line is asked, needled, demanded three times in a row in a play by Harold Pinter, it can begin to resemble a form of psychological torture. We may not know why it’s being asked or what the proper response should be, but we know that we feel uneasy. Or we should.

Pinter’s second play, first performed in 1958 to a rather chilly critical reaction, deliberately leaves the audience with a multitude of unanswered questions. Characters contradict each other, are referred to by varying names and conversations rarely consist of straightforward dialogue. By the end of this turbulent three-act show (Steppenwolf’s production is two hours and twenty minutes with two intermissions), it’s normal to feel disturbed and more than a little confused. But what this particular birthday party is missing is a deep-seated sense of dread.
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The Play is the Sing: Steppenwolf’s James Vincent Meredith Gets Musical in “Book of Mormon”

Musicals, Profiles, Theater No Comments »

By Dennis Polkow

If Chicago actor James Vincent Meredith looks familiar, he has been a fixture on Chicago stages for years. But even those who have not caught his distinctive performances across the area may recognize him from his recurring role on “Boss,” the Starz television series starring Kelsey Grammer where Meredith plays South Side Alderman Ross.

“Usually just exteriors are shot in Chicago when a series is set there,” says Meredith, “but the entire series is shot here, so actors and crew members get a chance to show what they are made of by being shot exclusively here.” That has been wonderful for Meredith since it has not only meant that he could continue working Chicago stages while the series shot but it also meant short commutes for the Chicago native.

“I was born in Chicago,” says Meredith, “I went to Evanston Township High School but actually started learning about acting and such at Piven Theatre Workshop, which is based in Evanston. Byrne and Joyce Piven were my main teachers at that time and taught me a lot and gave me confidence that I didn’t know I had, although in high school, everyone has confidence issues. I started acting there and went to school in Champaign and then came back up here in ’94.” Read the rest of this entry »