Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Into the Woods/The Hypocrites

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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Opening a Stephen Sondheim show, even one of his most popular, two days before Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Gary Griffin—the city’s unquestioned master of stellar Sondheim productions—puts up “Gypsy,” is either an act of savvy marketing or foolish bravado. But The Hypocrites, long associated with founder Sean Graney’s over-the-top zaniness, are maturing into a company adept at matching the  freewheeling creativity that earned their reputation with the ability to round up specialized talent and the discipline to deliver musical theater capable of working on its own melodic merits. They’ve proven so recently with a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan classics, but now show they’re far from a one-composer wonder. The Hypocrites’ “Into the Woods” is a wonder on its own: at once a faithful interpretation of Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved classic—with some terrific voices and a small but sturdy cohort of behind-the-scenes musicians—that never loses sight of the Hypocrites’ signature sense of humor. The musical opens with the cast lollygagging on a stage set created by William Boles to look like a preschool classroom, a perfectly reasonable launching point for a story that mashes up some of the Brothers Grimm’s finest, from Jack and the Beanstalk to Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Tennessee Williams Project/The Hypocrites

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Hollis Patrick Gannon and Joseph Wiens/Photo by Matthew Gregory

Patrick Gannon and Joseph Wiens/Photo: Matthew Gregory

Legendary director Elia Kazan once said of Tennessee Williams “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”  This insight proves prescient when applied to The Hypocrites production of three of his lesser-known one-act plays.  Presented back to back to back (with each play ending with just a jolt of an introduction to the next), the plays mine the same themes of his better-known work (mortality, sexual predators and self-delusion to name a few), but with a bit more creative flourish. It would be hard to imagine, for example, Marlon Brando suddenly breaking out in song (this is exactly what a brutish sailor does in the similar-to-”Streetcar”-feeling first play).  Not only are these touches entertaining, they also help the viewer gain better insight into the mindset of a true American theatrical genius. Not every outside-the-box wrinkle works as well—it is unclear why in another play the lead character is reduced to swinging ape-like across a series of suspended rings—but one gets the sense that within these plays Tennessee Williams gave himself permission to experiment a little. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites at the Steppenwolf Garage

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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During last Sunday’s unseasonable tornado alert, The Hypocrites inaugurated their holiday season with a fittingly dramatic opening: the remount of their 2012 hit production of “The Mikado.”

It is the reviewer’s great, double-edged privilege to see a show in its early stages, before it has simmered down to a comfortable boil, allowing the flavors to reduce and properly complement each other. And this was the case with “The Mikado.” All the ingredients for last year’s smash hit are probably still there, but the bugs just need to be worked out so that the cast and crew can get settled into the experience.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” is first and foremost a light-opera confection, designed to delight and amuse a willing audience, and it would be an incredibly dedicated Scrooge indeed who wasn’t susceptible to such an exhilarating musical concoction. However, The Hypocrites’ self-designed overture—a guitar and string orchestra of wandering minstrels playing and singing David Byrne and other unfortunate, non-sequitur pop hits—is a special and egregious form of torture, having nothing to do with either the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, nor the ensuing adapted story of the Mikado. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lord of the Flies/Steppenwolf for Young Adults

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Appearing in 1954 as the debut novel of British author William Golding, “Lord of the Flies” struck a deep chord in the post-World War II era with its chilling Cold War reality check that for all of the threat of civilization being annihilated due to nuclear attack, the real enemy was within.

Just how quickly British school boys go from being cultivated cultural ambassadors to bloodthirsty killers afraid of the dark in the absence of adult supervision has been used as an adult-inflicted morality tale on school-age children for decades. Kudos to the Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation for its faithfulness to a novel where less is often more and to Hypocrites artistic director Halena Kays for a Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production that encapsulates emotional intensity and casual brutality with disturbing reality. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: That’s Weird, Grandma/Barrel of Monkeys

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Photo by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

Photo: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

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“That’s Weird, Grandma…”  You know you’ve heard the phrase, though just what it connotes has always remained a tad unclear.  (Sometimes it’s just enough to have a witty catch phrase to tickle the imagination.)  So I attended last Monday’s production of Barrel of Monkeys’ “That’s Weird, Grandma” to see what the fuss was all about.

Barrel of Monkeys is an arts education group, now in its sixteenth year, and “That’s Weird, Grandma,” now in its twelfth year, is a showcase, variety show and veritable cavalcade of comic sketches inspired by the creative writings of underage, non-voting, non-imbibing, developing citizens. In other words, children. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 12 Nights/The Hypocrites

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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In his time, Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his comedies, were meant to entertain the masses. These early situational comedies (yes, sitcoms) were borderline interactive, with a small (all male) troupe playing multiple roles. The Hypocrites’ version of “Twelfth Night” (adapted and directed by Sean Graney and rechristened “12 Nights”) captures this ebullient Shakespearean spirit even as it strips down, modernizes and even mocks many of the original plot points.

Waiting in the lower lobby of the Chopin Theater, the audience is warmly greeted by the show’s energetic ensemble (Tien Doman, Christine Stulik, Zeke Sulkes and Jeff Trainor) before being ushered into a staging area that features free cookies, a disco ball, a chance to write on the walls with markers and some “great ’80s jams.” From this pre-show party those audience members with seats are invited to the actual set, a small section of astroturf surrounded by multi-colored lawn chairs, rainbow-striped walls and dangling air fresheners. The rest of the audience is then invited in to stand and watch from any available spot in the room. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John/The Hypocrites

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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One hopes the producers and creative team of the deeply problematic “Big Fish,” which recently completed its pre-Broadway tryout here in Chicago, caught a preview of “Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John,” a new play by Jay Torrence at the Chopin Theatre, before jetting back to Broadway.

You see, a core problem with the wishy-washy new musical with songs by by Andrew Lippa was that the main character’s tall tales—which give the show all of its theatricality—weren’t so tall; they were puny and mistakenly literal. As realized by Susan Stroman, giants, witches, floods and daffodils were rendered feeble and near-magic-less by the traditional musical theater razzmatazz.
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Review: Coriolanus/The Hypocrites

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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“I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me,” said war-hero-turned-president Andrew Jackson, a man whose personal and political lives were both defined by tumult. His ferocious worldview would surely be echoed by the vicious though resoundingly human title character of William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” which is receiving an ideal production by The Hypocrites at the Chopin Theatre.

Entering a space covered in soft, gray carpet imparts an illusion of ease. Maybe the bounce of your foot against the plush floor will mimic the play’s own delighted buoyancy of language and plot. Not so in this basement battlefield. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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PLAYERSThough we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik, Matt Kahler, Dana Omar, Emily Casey/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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Following in the footsteps of its highly successful and innovative “Pirates of Penzance,” which is being revived and running in repertory alongside of this offering, the Hypocrites are once again turning to Gilbert & Sullivan this holiday season.

Those who only like their Gilbert & Sullivan served up with all of the trimmings, i.e., trained voices, full orchestrations, full chorus, et al, would be well-warned to stay away from Sean Graney’s musically minimalist version of either “Pirates of Penzance” or his newest G & S adaptation of the Victorian duo’s most famous work, “The Mikado.”

As with “Pirates,” Sullivan’s orchestrations are stripped down to the lowest-common-denominator guitar chords, largely strummed by the performers themselves hootenanny style, sometimes incorporating clarinet, banjo, mandolin, ukulele and accordion.

From the opening change of lyric from “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of this land” instead of “from Japan,” it is clear that the Japanese contours of the allegorical work are minimalized. And yet, the Victorian ambiance is retained by the characters having faux British accents and often singing in a highly stylized manner, cleverly making G & S performance traditions themselves part of what is satirized here. Read the rest of this entry »