Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Airline Highway/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

This twenty-three-person, epic-scale panorama of New Orleans down-and-outers is echt Steppenwolf, overflowing with all that’s best and worst about Chicago’s signature theater company. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s slice-of-life naturalism harks back to the troupe’s salad days, when its kinetic, sometimes scenery-chewing productions of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” and “Hot L Baltimore” put the ragtag band from ISU on the map, marking them as the nation’s foremost purveyors of urban angst to suburban culture consumers. True, the setup always was a touch creepy, but the rawness of the presentation, the undeniable acting chops of the original corps (including such promising youngsters as Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich) and the provocative quality of the scripts made for a genuine edginess and relevance.

Many of those early strengths are on display here. Director Joe Mantello, imported from New York, elicits an array of sizzling performances from his Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast. Chief among these is K. Todd Freeman’s impeccable portrayal of Sissy NaNa, the black transvestite and moral center of the tribe of survivors who live in the Hummingbird Motel, a dingy hostelry on Airline Highway, far from the touristy French Quarter. Sissy and his homies—including aging hooker and addict Tanya (Kate Buddeke), hard-up handyman Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), beatnik poet Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss), alcoholic property manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck) and angry stripper Krista (Caroline Neff)—have come together to honor fellow resident Miss Ruby (the formidable Judith Roberts), whose life as an exotic dancer and artiste is about to end. Attending the premature funeral is Bait Boy (played with a nuanced touch of macho malice by Stephen Louis Grush), Krista’s former lover, who left the Hummingbird and the demimonde years earlier, taking a new name, the conventional Greg. He has done well for himself, acquiring, among other things, a high-school-age, nasal-voiced stepdaughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver). Zoe is there to observe, hoping to get an A on her sociology paper by documenting the rituals of the Hummingbird “subculture.” Read the rest of this entry »

Living Funeral at the Hummingbird Hotel: Steppenwolf Playwright Lisa D’Amour on Setting Her “Airline Highway” in Her New Orleans Hometown

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(from top, then left to right) Scott Jaeck, Brenann Stacker, Caroline Neff, Terry Hamilton, Kate Buddeke and Carolyn Braver/Photo: Joel Moorman

(from top, then left to right) Scott Jaeck, Brenann Stacker, Caroline Neff, Terry Hamilton, Kate Buddeke and Carolyn Braver/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

Lisa D’Amour is a playwright and an interdisciplinary artist. “It’s just a little bizarre that it’s kind of two different fields,” she notes when we discuss the distinction between traditional theater and interdisciplinary arts. “It’s sort of astounding how little the leaders in these fields talk to each other.” An Obie winner for her play “Detroit” as well as for work as part of the collaborative performance duo PearlDamour, she’s been working closely with Steppenwolf on the world premiere of her new play “Airline Highway.”

I asked D’Amour if developing a play set in her hometown of New Orleans with the famed Chicago theater, who commissioned the piece, affected the content of the show. “Only in that it helps to make the content clearer. It’s especially good to be developing it with a lot of people who don’t know a whole lot about New Orleans. There are certain sort of inside jokes and references that are very New Orleans specific and many remained in the play, but when there’s too many then an audience that doesn’t know New Orleans just feels lost. It was really a great way to kind of shape how we make this accessible to a Steppenwolf audience without dulling the play down.”

The play is set in the parking lot of the fading Hummingbird Hotel on the titular roadway, where a group of the establishment’s current and former residents gather to celebrate the life of dying octogenarian Miss Ruby, Bourbon Street burlesque legend and matriarch to many. This celebration takes the form of a living funeral. 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 »

On the Whale Trail with Joe Forbrich: Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Whaleship Essex”

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(l to r) Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Drew Schad, Angie Shriner, Kevin Viol and Steve Peebles/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Hugh Iglarsh

Before the black gold of petroleum became the driving force of business and empire, it was whale blubber that lit the lamps and lubricated both the machinery and the ambitions of antebellum America. And a generation before Captain Ahab and the Pequod sailed into our collective imagination, there was the very real Captain Pollard and the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaler battered and sunk by an enraged and seemingly vengeful ninety-foot monster of the deep.

The story of hunter turned helpless prey, and of the sailors’ three-month voyage across the open sea in whaleboats after the Essex went down, with only eight of the twenty crew members surviving the ordeal, is coming to the Chicago stage, courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre.

Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the greatest aquatic menace is rotting alewives, Joe Forbrich’s “The Whaleship Essex” will transport the audience back to 1820s New England. It was a time when peace-loving, luxury-spurning Nantucket Quakers roamed from equator to pole in search of sperm whales to slaughter and render into precious oil, spermaceti and ambergris. Driven by a seemingly “un-Friendly” combination of avarice, machismo and bloodlust, they created efficient floating abattoirs, turning the planet’s most magnificent creatures into ingredients for candles and axle grease. It was just business, albeit a risky, widow-making one, and the Nantucketers – described by Herman Melville as “Quakers with a vengeance” – took pride in their ability to feed an insatiable market the commodity it craved. Read the rest of this entry »

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


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


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


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.

Read the rest of this entry »