Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

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The problem that any company encounters when producing “The Mikado” is—to put it bluntly—it’s kinda sorta maybe pretty undeniably racist. And as it is a show set in Japan that was written by a pair of middle-aged British guys during the height of the Victorian Empire—neither of whom had ever been to Japan—its racial insensitivity is unsurprising. Despite all of this, “The Mikado” has not only managed to survive, but has downright thrived in the century-plus since its inception. It has done so because from the music to the lyrics to the book, the show is a fantastic piece of musical comedy. And yet, in production after production, there are still those moments where audiences squirm in their seats and look askance. Both theater artists and audiences have trouble reconciling their desire for Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterful artistry with the fact that they then have to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan’s stupid, ill-informed racism. It’s a pickle for sure.

Thankfully Sean Graney has rolled into town with his patented pickle-solving machine. Having made a career as a kind of theatrical necromancer, taking dead classical texts and reviving them to make them dance anew, Graney is perfectly suited to the task. And in the end, the answer was deceptively simple: Graney got rid of the racism by just kind of ignoring it. He took the show, which is currently running as a part of The Hypocrites “Gilbert and Sullivan Rep,” and he set it in a circus. There are polka-dot dresses, red-banded stockings and bright-green suspenders by the dozen with nary a kimono in sight. Additionally, he took Gilbert and Sullivan’s ornate, occasionally Orientalist score and reconstructed it for a motley assortment of guitars, accordions and banjos. Other than occasional mentions that the story is set in Japan, one would never know that the characters were meant to be a British person’s idea of a Japanese person. Instead they seem like what they really are: a British person’s idea of another, much sillier British person. I have no idea if this was Graney’s idea when he set out to adapt the piece, but it works. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: H.M.S. Pinafore/The Hypocrites

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(top) Erik Schroeder with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

Erik Schroeder (top) with Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

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First, he turned “Pirates of Penzance” into a beach-bum sing-along. Next, he took “The Mikado” and made a three-ring circus with all three rings overlapping, like a Venn diagram. And now, Sean Graney has arrived at the inevitable: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” This time around he has picked a theme that perhaps best encapsulates his madmen-running-the-madhouse promenade style, turning the whole thing into a slumber party. What does a slumber party have to do with a show about the Victorian-era British Navy, you might ask?

From what I can tell, slumber parties have as much to do with the British Navy as the Shogun’s Japan has to do with PT Barnum and high seas profiteering has to do with Jimmy Buffett. That is to say, not a whole heck of a lot. And yet these three shows, currently running in rep at The Den Theatre’s new ground-floor space, all feel exactly right. They aren’t strict adaptations, and “H.M.S. Pinafore” is especially generous with the chopping and the splicing and the devil-may-care-but-we-sure-as-heck-don’t textural additions. They are re-imaginings. Graney has actually gone and broken these operettas down into their component parts and then built them back up again according to his own crazed design. “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a slumber party because Sean Graney’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” feels like a slumber party. So nyeh! Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dead Accounts/Step Up Productions

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 (l to r) Emily Tate, Steve O'Connell and Elizabeth Antonucci/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Emily Tate, Steve O’Connell and Elizabeth Antonucci/Photo: Michael Brosilow

I don’t know what New York City did to Theresa Rebeck to piss her off so mightily, but whatever it was she seems to have really taken it to heart. Of course, that’s not quite true. I do know what New York City did, and it goes by the name of “The 2008 Financial Crisis.” Rebeck’s 2012 play “Dead Accounts,” now receiving its Chicago premiere in the hands of Step Up Productions, is what’s commonly known as an angry screed. And like so many screeds before it the play works itself up into such a lather that it becomes incoherent. It confuses New York City in general with Wall Street in particular, and in doing so conflates geography with destiny (or maybe culpability is a better word) and undermines its own very salient point of view. Wall Street deserves to be excoriated for what it did to this country, but “Dead Accounts” is about as imperfect a messenger as any to be found.

In all honesty, the script isn’t really worthy of the solid, heartfelt production that it receives from Step Up. Director Jason Gerace and his talented cast, led by Steve O’Connell, imbue Rebeck’s words with an energized empathy that makes for a moving, entertaining evening. Read the rest of this entry »

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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