Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Testament of Mary/Victory Gardens Theater

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Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

I love Jesus. Could even say I’ve got a complex. Can’t really blame my Catholic school, they didn’t teach a damn thing about the scriptures. And admittedly a harsh history of my attractions may reveal a Mary Magdalene fixation. But I’ve never been much for the other, mother Mary. As undeniably as the various takes on Jesus are up to interpretation, Mary seems a pure white screen upon which believers project. The Mary that materializes in this one-woman show is intellectually defiant, emotionally devastated and remarkably well spoken for a peasant woman. She’s a full character with a historical chip on her shoulder. She’s a mother, not an icon, even if she is doomed to become the latter.

I’m a skeptic of religion and of theater, which may cast my credentials as an admirer of the Christ and a commentator on the stage in a suspicious light. So, crucify me. This show clearly casts doubt upon the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith, but it doesn’t quite make me believe in the need for its staging either. This play is based on a book—not the “good” book—but a novella by Colm Tóibín.  I left with doubts in the mission of adapting this book into a performance. Despite the unflinchingly gutsy performance by Linda Reiter and the tasteful and expressive set and projection design by Christopher Ash, I suspect everything Tóibín has to offer could be gleaned from reading this on the page. Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Intimate Years: Redtwist Theatre Looks to Season Eleven

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Redtwist Theatre's storefront location

Redtwist Theatre’s storefront location

By Aaron Hunt

With thirty-six Joseph Jefferson nominations and nine wins since Redtwist Theatre’s first show in the Edgewater neighborhood opened in September 2003, it might seem that the company didn’t spend much Cinderella-time by the fireplace. But none of Chicago’s storefront theaters skate through more than ten years without some bumps along the way and this season Redtwist celebrates the anniversary of their residency at 1044 West Bryn Mawr with an eleventh season entitled “Rising From the Ashes.”

I spoke with Redtwist’s artistic director Michael Colucci and original member Johnny Garcia about the company’s journey and the alchemy that has given the company its status and resiliency. Colucci was transplanted from New Jersey to Chicago in 1981. “It was because of a corporate job change,” he says. “The company shipped my boss [here]…and he said, why don’t you come with me? There’s an opening in Chicago.” He smiles. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Colucci arrived at the beginning of Chicago’s storefront theater boom. Body Politic, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens and other financially strapped, artistically rich organizations re-envisioned street-level real estate no longer fiscally viable for traditional business into storytelling spaces. Rent was cheap, and small but ardent collectives of newly graduated artists bursting out of Chicago’s universities remodeled these “homes” for theatrical expression.  Colucci found himself swept into this tidal wave. He studied acting, left his corporate job when his acting career gained momentum, then added coaching and stage direction to his portfolio. His studio became the Actors Workshop Theatre, and then morphed into Redtwist. The company moved into Edgewater in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Wild Party/Bailiwick Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

At the end of a party I usually feel exhausted. All my energy has been spent. Walking out of Bailiwick Chicago’s “The Wild Party” I felt much the same way. Dulled and listless, like all I wanted to do was pitch over into my bed and pass out. But of course there are two different kinds of exhausted. There’s the good kind, where every last ounce of vigor and joy and joie de vivre has been rung out of me, and I can go to sleep knowing I’ve lived a night well-lived. Then there’s the not-so-good kind, where it feels like I’ve just survived the zombie apocalypse—if the zombies were really interested in drunkenly yammering  about what they did when they went WOOFing after graduation—and I’ve just decided to lay down in a field somewhere and die already. “The Wild Party” left me feeling much like the former —satisfied and spent—even if most of what happened in it bore far more resemblance to the latter. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre

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Nina O'Keefe/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Nina O’Keefe (center) /Photo: Jonathan L. Green

RECOMMENDED

In a way Chekhov is a lot like Nirvana, in that it’s really easy to forget how great he was when you’ve been inundated with a century of increasingly pale imitations. If Chekhov’s “The Seagull” were considered his “Nevermind,” then Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” would be Creed’s “HumanClay.” Yet in “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s tragic/comic/foolish/wise/heroic/cowardly (alright, alright Chekhovian) protagonist Konstantin fantasizes about new forms of theater, ones that will shake off the dusty old retreads and lead audiences into a brave new tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that playwright Aaron Posner has chosen “The Seagull” for the funny, heartbreaking, fourth-wall battering post-punk manifesto that is his play “Stupid Fucking Bird.” And happily for both Posner and local audiences alike, Sideshow Theatre Company has given the show a breathless (as in “Breathless”) Chicago premiere.

The play itself is sometimes a little hard to describe in that it simultaneously is “The Seagull” and is not. The characters are all in place (with one notable consolidation) and the story follows the original to a tee… except when it doesn’t. However, the dialogue is all original and Posner creates a number of gorgeous original exchanges, except when he’s directly riffing on the original with smart-ass lines like “Because it’s slimming.” The best way to summarize it is that Posner uses “The Seagull” the way a child uses a Power Rangers action figure to concoct his own original story. He uses it to ask what the hell is wrong with our theater and, by extension, what the hell is wrong with us. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Death And The Maiden/Victory Gardens

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Photo: Michael Courier

Raúl Castillo, John Judd, Sandra Oh/Photo: Michael Courier

A not terribly interesting play about terribly important issues, “Death And The Maiden”—as seen in the current production at Victory Gardens—is most notable for a star turn courtesy of Sandra Oh and a set that turns courtesy of scenic designer William Boles.

The story starts with a bit of courtesy. Political cog Gerardo Escobar (Raúl Castillo) arrives home after a stranger assists him with a flat tire. When the stranger, Dr. Roberto Miranda (John Judd) arrives for an unannounced visit we soon discover that he may be horribly responsible for Escobar’s wife’s fragile mental health, a fragility Gerardo handles with repugnant condescension. The wife, Paulina (Oh) is certain that Miranda is the doctor who attended and increasingly orchestrated her torture during their unnamed country’s hideous recent past.

In the stiltedly expository opening, we learn both Escobars have no real faith in the new government’s truth commission, which Gerardo has agreed to join. So we’re not surprised when Paulina takes justice into her own hands, hands with which she carelessly waves a gun within potentially disarming reach of her husband, who verbally objects to her tactics but does nothing to stop her. With her supposed fragility instantly vanquished by the opportunity for vengeance, Paulina dictates the action for the only truly engaging parts of the show. She turns the tables on her presumed victimizer, tying him up, threatening, beating him a bit, all the while trying to convince both the doctor and her disbelieving, duplicitous spouse that a confession from her alleged abuser is the only way out of this escalating predicament. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Carrie: The Musical/Bailiwick Chicago

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Callie Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Callie Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Mention to any fan of the American musical theater the musicalization of Stephen King’s novel “Carrie” and I guarantee you will enjoy a visceral response; anything from the lift of an eyebrow to a physical readjustment of the entire body-frame will indicate their awareness of, and feelings regarding, the Michael Gore/Dean Pitchford/Lawrence D. Cohen show. A little background: according to The Huffington Post, “Carrie” closed in 1988 “after five regular performances, lost $8 million and became the most expensive flop in Broadway history at the time.” The reverential mounting by Bailiwick Chicago belies the piece’s subsequent camp-cult status. Aside from a few laughers, the audience took the show quite seriously on the night I saw it.

However, director Michael Driscoll and his production team did not lift it from its prom-night blood and ashes. Hampered by a pop-rock score that offers mediocre melodies with the occasional musical hook, repeated without reinstatement or change in meter, key, or even lyrics, and a book that can’t decide whether it is telling the story of a family-life gone horribly awry or a high-school experience rife with interpersonal dreadfulness and finding itself unable to tell the two stories at the same time (the success of which might have saved the entire debacle), only solid delivery can save this show. How can a story resonate with an audience engaged in a discussion of bullying and gun control, where the bullied telekinetically murders both her foes and her allies, knifing the audience anew with never-to-be-erased pictures of schoolchildren dead from high-powered weapons? Carrie herself mentions desiring vengeance in her first musical moment, losing potential sympathy, and the character of her friend Sue is insufficiently highlighted at the top of the piece, and then over-studied in Act II; at first we miss her as the Everyman she might portray, as our window in, and later we wish she would shut up about her boyfriend so we could get to the prom. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A View from the Bridge/Teatro Vista

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Sandra Marquez and Ayssette Munoz/ Photo: Joel Maisonet

Sandra Marquez and Ayssette Munoz/ Photo: Joel Maisonet

RECOMMENDED

From the very beginning of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” you know there’s a train coming, but you can’t get off the track. All you can do is watch as the train moves closer and closer until the headlights blind you. Perhaps, in this case, it’s more appropriate to imagine the Titanic heading toward that fatal iceberg.

Set in the 1950s in Red Hook, a New York neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge, the play follows hard-working longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Ramón Carmín) and his wife Beatrice (Sandra Marquez) and their differing opinions on how to let their niece Catherine (Ayssette Munoz) come into her womanhood. At seventeen, Catherine wants to work and has been taking classes in the hopes of becoming a secretary. Eddie is extremely protective of Catherine. While his care for her seems to come from a good-hearted place, it becomes clear that his emotions are a bit mixed up when he begins to project his feelings onto those around him, especially on his immigrant relatives Marco (Eddie Diaz) and Rodolpho (Tommy Vega-Rivera), who has taken a romantic interest in Catherine.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Gospel of Lovingkindness/Victory Gardens Theater

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RECOMMENDED

Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Tosin Morohunfola/Photo: Michael Courier

Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Tosin Morohunfola/Photo: Michael Courier

415. The number of homicides recorded in Chicago in 2013. 46. The number of homicides recorded in Chicago as of January 1, 2014. 266. The price of a pair of Air Jordans, and the cost of a young person’s life in Marcus Gardley’s “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” currently playing at Victory Gardens Theater.

This play is rooted in the harsh reality of urban life in Chicago. It focuses on the stories of two mothers, their sons and the “village” it takes to raise their children, a village that has become a place of chaos, where “bullets don’t obey boundaries.”

Mary (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is on stage—restlessly sitting in a chair—as the audience enters. White tables, chairs, a post box, basketball hoop and a 54/Cermak sign (like the one at the CTA stop) hang from the ceiling like a world turned upside down or dreams just a bit too far to reach. As the lights dim, a series of monologues serve as introductions to the people in Mary’s life and, one by one, it becomes more apparent why she can’t say a word: her memories have left her speechless and she is forced to awake to a cruel reality no parent should have to face. Read the rest of this entry »

Play Time: How to Binge on Chicago Theatre Week

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DebClapp-colorprint-headshotBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

A relatively new phenomenon, Chicago Theatre Week is the opportunity for both the diehard fan and the average Joe to explore and enjoy the variety of theater that Chicago has on offer on the cheap with 100 productions all offering reduced ticket prices for the duration of the event. In its brief tenure, Chicago Theatre Week has joined the ranks of Restaurant Week on the list of “amazing activities with which to lust away an entire week in Chicago,” and rightly so—but what is it about Chicago theater that makes it special? And what better time than Chicago Theatre Week to find out?

We asked Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, which organizes Theatre Week, to share her insights with us.

What got you interested in theater in Chicago?
I moved to Chicago to work at the Goodman and I really wasn’t aware at the time that there was such an amazing theater scene happening here… At Goodman I was privileged to be able to work with such companies as Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna and Congo Square. Those companies and their high levels of artistic quality, craftsmanship and professionalism gave me my first glimpse of what was going on in Chicago and got me interested in what was happening in the rest of the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Golden Dragon/Sideshow Theatre Company

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GoldenDragon-2RECOMMENDED

A production that aims to be gripping and unsettling from the start, Sideshow’s staging of “The Golden Dragon” grows more successful with every scene. However that’s not to say that it starts out successfully.

From the onset, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s script flaunts theater tradition. The most obvious stylistic flourishes are the casting of each actor in several shifting gender-/race-/age-defying roles, and the actors’ recitation of stage directions intermingled with their dialogue. The entire cast is expert in their handling of the various roles, and this approach serves to draw parallels and distinctions between the characters which otherwise would not be so pronounced. But rather than feeling daring, the inclusion of the stage directions as dialogue is immediately tedious and gimmicky as no insight is added by these announced directions. Yet as the play continues and we become more engrossed in the intersecting tales of migrant employment, domestic squabbles and sexual exploitation, these interruptions in the dialogue serve to distance us, the audience, from the horrors that mount—much as the majority of characters distance themselves from the moral violations they increasingly engage in. Read the rest of this entry »