Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

Review: Elegy/The Elegy Project

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TheElegyProject_Elegy01: (L to R) Justin Leider, Iris Lieberman and David Wohl/Photo by Anthony Robert La Penna

Justin Leider, Iris Lieberman and David Wohl/Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna

RECOMMENDED

Trying to understand the Holocaust is like staring into the sun, and to dramatize it is to minimize it. Playwright Ron Hirsen’s “Elegy”—now running in a taut, eloquent production at Victory Gardens—succeeds against all odds by coming at the subject obliquely. His pointed seventy-minute script focuses on the after-effects of trauma, showing that the horror is not just in the pain that’s inflicted at the time, but the numbness that follows, draining life and feeling from the world.

Set in New York in the 1970s, with frequent flashbacks to the 1938 state-sponsored pogrom known as Kristallnacht, “Elegy” follows a German-Jewish survivor couple, Hilde (Iris Lieberman) and Helmut (David Wohl), and their troubled twenty-something son, Jerry (Justin Leider). Jerry finds in his parents’ attic a gorgeous German poem written decades ago by his father, who now spends all his time tending the bakery that pays Jerry’s medical school bills. It is inconceivable to Jerry that his gruff, emotionally remote father could once have been a poet and rebel. He realizes that much has been kept from him, and that he does not know this man at all. What he does know is that he can no longer bear the pressure of being his father’s “miracle,” doing his living for him and embodying not just the family’s future, but also its murdered past.
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Review: Mojada/Victory Gardens Theater

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Last summer at Victory Gardens, the intense “Oedipus el Rey” uncovered parallels between King Oedipus’ dark road to blind incest and Los Angeles’ treacherous gang life. Not quite what you’d expect from Sophocles. What was really surprising though was how loudly Luis Alfaro’s play resonated in Chicago and expressed our city’s own urban problems—specifically the ritualist, tribal, patriarchal qualities of gangs that keep them thriving. I thought of that strange and terrible system earlier this year when it was reported that the CPS closings would force some students to cross rival gang lines to get to class. Gang lines?

Alongside Alfaro’s hard-hitting narrative was the contrastingly brutal and fanciful staging of Chay Yew, a director whose ability to craft a story with the human body is unmatched in Chicago. Back again at Victory Gardens, Alfaro’s “Mojada” is the playwright’s take on the story of “Medea,” the vengeful sorceress of morally questionable resolve (by today’s standards), set against a backdrop of faltering immigration policy in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Yew once again directs, and this new collaboration is every bit as thunderous as “Oedipus.”
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Review: The Whale/Victory Gardens Theater

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Seated behind me on Monday night at Victory Gardens Theater was a woman laughing uncontrollably while a six-hundred-pound man choked on a sandwich. My jaw dropped to the floor. The quality of her laughter wasn’t shock—you know, when visual stimuli so jarring forces you to cope by making some noise—but rather a one-person cacophony of self-satisfied giggles. So in rapture was she that I could hear her hand muffling her mouth in back of my seat.

There was no legitimate cause for laughter, mind you. Dale Calandra’s performance as Charlie in “The Whale” is among the most revelatory turns onstage this season: addictive in its complexity, simultaneously universal and of a singular time and place, enigmatic and all-around personable, kindly. Calandra, fitted with a body-suit, owns his character’s frame honestly and sympathetically; the majority of the audience embarked on a mutual journey with this man. This lady was guffawing at the image of a fat character choking. That’s it. However, as troubling a response as her’s was, the performer-and-audience interaction in that moment was astonishingly vital. We often rhetorically ask ourselves, “Why am I watching this play right now?” That night, for me, she was why.
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Critic’s Postcard: The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays at The Actors Theatre of Louisville

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9axoW91-2WG2E4dTfbfyOiikFKp67A0-pU7eVf3JhmwBy Johnny Oleksinski

The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville has come and gone. It was the first Festival of Les Waters’ artistic directorship, as well as my first visit to the theater (and city, truth be told). Although I only just lost my Humana virginity, the general hubbub around me indicated that this was the finest festival of the last several seasons. I saw six full-length productions over three days, an experience I think more Chicago theater aficionados should take in. It’s a cheap and easy trip too; I took the Megabus.

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