Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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: The Crownless King/The House Theatre of Chicago

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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As they’ve opted to open with a brief narrative recap (“Once upon a time, all the folk were free…”), it’s clear that writers Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews are well aware that even the most focused of memories may need a little refreshing before audiences are ready to dive into this sequel to last year’s “The Iron Stag King: Part One.” And they’re right about that; there’s a good deal of backstory that potential viewers should be acquainted with (whether they saw the first installment of this as-yet-unnamed trilogy or not). Because as with part one, “The Crownless King” throws it all out there: Marriage. War. Free will. The disembodied voice of Tracy Letts. It’s a lot to take in.

So, here we go.

After the triumphant hammer-raising at the end of “Iron Stag King,” the newly crowned Casper Kent (Brandon Ruiter) is tasked with leading the kingdom of New Plymouth toward… something. It’s never quite clear what. It seems Casper mainly just wants to preside over a peaceful, prosperous land. But shifty storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain)—who’s coordinated all the steps up to this point—has another, more violent, plan in mind. And whatever anyone’s plan is, the fierce pirate Davy Boone (Blake Montgomery doing a fairly solid impression of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher from “Gangs of New York”) objects and declares war on New Plymouth in the name of freedom. Read the rest of this entry »

Full Nelson: The Singular Intensity of Michael Shannon

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Photo: Dave Rentauskas

Photo: Dave Rentauskas

By Brian Hieggelke

The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Pre-Production Notes
When he gets the email from A Red Orchid Theatre’s publicist that Michael Shannon is available to do a cover story, the reporter has to move fast. Shannon’s back in Chicago for the theater company’s twentieth-anniversary production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” and it starts July 4. The reporter has limited familiarity with his work, having somehow managed to never see him live in spite of his long career on local stages, knowing him only from his Academy Award-nominated role as the troubled John Givings, Jr. in “Revolutionary Road” and his recurring role in “Boardwalk Empire” as the creepy G-Man Nelson Van Alden. It’s gonna require a crash course.

To get his head around the subject, the reporter makes a list of adjectives that come to mind when he thinks of Michael Shannon: creepy, brooding, tall, gangly, face of a fallen Puritan, mysterious, Christopher Walken, disturbed, unhinged, dangerous. The reporter cautiously commits to the story.

And there’s this: “Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter” on the website Funny or Die has been watched 3,805,601 times. Add sense of humor to the list.

 

The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Scene One: “The Power of Celebrity”
Thanks to his starring role as Superman’s foe, General Zod, in this summer’s superhero blockbuster, “Man of Steel,” Shannon now has action figures in his likeness. “When I was doing press for the movie, in every interview,” Shannon says, “someone would ask me, inevitably, ‘Are you prepared for it to all change, for your life to be completely different now?’ And I would kind of get a quizzical look on my face and say, ‘I suppose. I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to,’ but you know, you have enough people ask you that question and you think, maybe it really will, maybe it will be like Beatlemania or something. But it’s not.” Read the rest of this entry »

God at Work: The Divine Genius of Steppenwolf Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney

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Photo: Deana Lawson

Photo: Deana Lawson

By Johnny Oleksinski

“I’m a sock guy. I love socks,” says Tarell Alvin McCraney, glancing down at my feet. I’m wearing striped socks with an alternating spectrum of pinks divided by thin lines of navy blue. That proudly garish footwear is accompanied by a new blazer with patched elbows, a pressed pink shirt buttoned up to the neck, dark skinny jeans and black leather shoes. My outfit was strategic. It’s always ideal to relate to the person you’re interviewing, not unlike in a job interview, and McCraney is an impeccable dresser.

A perusal of his past photo shoots reveals a meticulous ensemble that’s Buddy Holly-cum-GQ model, scholarly but easygoing. Explaining my own prim-and-proper appearance, I tell him that I’m prematurely dressed for the opera—a partly true statement. Sure, I am going to Lyric later, but I’d attend the opera in a hoodie without much hesitation. Right now, I am dressed to impress. “I actually have those socks,” he points out. Skeptically I reply, “I bought them at an H&M, but I’m sure a lot of people make them.” “No. I have those socks. I love socks. If you came on a day when I actually had on clothes, you’d see I have all kinds of socks like polka-dot socks, crazy color socks.”

Today, McCraney, one of the most prominent playwrights of his generation, adorns more casual attire, and he laments the inevitability of another photo shoot for this story. “We need to sell tickets, right?” I nod. “Because usually I’m not thinking about that, so I just showed up in some sweats, some sneakers and white socks for God’s sake.” He assures me, “I never wear white socks.” I tell him, honestly, that I think he looks good. “Oh God, I look like hell. But I always look like hell ‘cause see I’m in tech, so I kinda like—I always look like hell. I’m always just sleeping and reading and then, you know, working on stuff. I don’t go outside.” He laughs a truly disarming laugh. His excuse is as good as any. It is tech week for “Head of Passes,” a world-premiere play by McCraney at Steppenwolf Theatre, where he is an ensemble member. And during tech, as the playwright physically recedes into the darkness and his words become illuminated on the stage, his clothing can become comfy. 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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Critic’s Postcard: Chicago Theater Takes New York City

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“A Twist of Water”/ Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Johnny Oleksinski

I arrived in New York City to an unexpectedly premature November blizzard, the biggest effect of an ill-timed nor’easter. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. After all, this past month New York’s relationship to nature has been understatedly complicated. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New York was an unusual, familiar and inspiring place to be for a few days, especially given my trip’s purpose: to review three plays that ventured eastward from Chicago. For me, the shimmering snow was cold comfort.

“It’s probably snowing, right? Two in three chance it is,” jokes Noah (Stef Tovar) in Route 66 Theatre’s homegrown love letter to Chicago, “A Twist of Water.” In his first direct-address monologue, Noah, a high-school teacher and father, establishes his Windy City dwelling with brotherly sarcastic kinship. The entire audience of New Yorkers sitting in 59e59 Theater Off Broadway laughed, Chicago’s own meteorological reputation apparently preceding itself. Phew. Of all the productions I’d come to review, I was most unnerved by the potential response to Caitlin Montanye Parrish’s work, condensed but potent, that captures the spiritual essence of this city better than any Chicago-set play I’ve ever seen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Iron Stag King: Part One/The House Theatre of Chicago

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Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

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Wizards. Pirates. Vikings. Politics. Tracy Letts voicing a giant dragon. The first show of the House Theatre’s eleventh season is nothing if not ambitious. Striving to be epic, playwrights Chris Mathews and Nathan Allen (who also serves as artistic director of The House and director of this production) have sought to cram a multitude of themes, characters and backstory into the two-and-a-half-hour part one of the “Iron Stag King” trilogy. Intertwining the legends of King Arthur with early American politics and fantasy sensibilities, the story follows storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain) as he leads a stalwart (if unsure) young man (Brandon Ruiter), a team of warriors and a fanboy (Ben Hertel, providing ample comedic relief) to reclaim a magic hammer and thus the crown of the land. With seating arranged in an arena-like square around an open set allowing for four entrances and exits, the action sequences are thrilling and immediate. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Three Sisters/Steppenwolf Theatre

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In the wake of two new high-profile adaptations of Anton Chekhov’s classic plays by playwrights Sarah Ruhl and Annie Baker, Steppenwolf Theatre Company has wrought its own homegrown version of “The Three Sisters” by “August: Osage County” scribe Tracy Letts. And, for months, Letts’ turn has been the talk of the town.

Chicago, being familiar with Letts’ coarser indulgences, “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” has been swept up in a whirlwind of understandable curiosity over how the violent playwright would interpret Chekhov’s renowned verbal eloquence. Outside the theater, smooth-talking gamblers could be heard taking bets on the possible number of expletives in Mr. Letts’ Act One. Well, not really. But that’s a close approximation of the community hubbub. Rejoice, Letts fans! Now, the ever-rebellious Masha exclaims “Life sucks, so let’s live it up!” at the dinner table. But Chekhov scholars, rest assured that this predominantly standard production will not shock your delicate samovar-loving sensibilities. I promise. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2012: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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Darren Criss (#4) with Team StarKid

With our criteria shifted back to artistic accomplishment in theater, dance, comedy and opera this year, our task got infinitely tougher. Because while the number of performing venues grows at a steady rate, the increase in the number of noteworthy artists seems to grow exponentially. For everyone we name on the list below, we had to leave off five, an embarrassment of riches for Chicago. We made a conscious effort to introduce a meaningful number of new faces to the list this year; the necessary absences should not be construed as a loss of worthiness as a consequence. We often find trends when we do the research these lists require; this year we’re starting to see a more meaningful effort to redefine performance itself in the internet age, from the runaway success of StarKids, to the more calculated endeavors of Silk Road. So what defines a “player”? Consider it some complex stew of career achievement, recent “heat” and, in some cases, rising stardom.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Dennis Polkow

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Review: Penelope/Steppenwolf Theatre

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Logan Vaughn, Yasen Peyankov, Scott Jaeck and Tracy Letts/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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In Steppenwolf’s latest, playwright Enda Walsh paints a bleak picture of masculinity and what men must endure in today’s world: the cruelty of time, the savagery of economic survival, the political maneuverings of love.

Fitz (Tracy Letts), Quinn (Yasen Peyankov), Dunne (Scott Jaeck) and Burns (Ian Barford) are the remaining suitors vying for Penelope’s hand. They are running out of time; they’ve all dreamt of Odysseus’ return and their subsequent murders. The suitors work together to woo the queen. Read the rest of this entry »