Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Gospel of Lovingkindness/Victory Gardens Theater

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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

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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

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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

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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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Review: Disconnect/Victory Gardens Theater

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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When the cable goes out and you begrudgingly dial your service provider’s help line, who do you imagine is idling on the other end? My mind conjures up a grimy McCormick Place with seemingly endless, tidy rows of desks, and a chorus of popcorn office phones ringing off the hook. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new call center-set play, “Disconnect,” receiving an invigorating American premiere at Victory Gardens Theater after a debut at London’s Royal Court Theatre—perhaps the UK’s most bountiful reservoir of revelatory new plays—could have quite lazily appeased American popular perception of overseas call centers. But it doesn’t.

This call center, BlitzTel in Chennia, India, has an ultra-modern stainless steel sheen (set by Grant Sabin), and its young, fashionably dressed employees look as though culled from a Groupon. Ross (Debargo Sanyal) Giri (Behzad Dabu) and Vidya (Minita Gandhi) frequently maintain that their daily toiling is a good job and they never outright question that assertion. These twentysomething workers also have some power in the grand scheme of call centers employees; they are the ones who make the calls, collecting debt for an American credit card company. “Disconnect,” a renegade freight train driven by director Ann Filmer, explores what it means to be a citizen of a newly global society—spending double digit hours on the job talking only to Americans, fooling the marks into thinking you’re on their soil.

Chandrasekhar resides in Chennai, but she studied at the University of Illinois, so the play deftly captures the duality of these recent college grads’ existence. The necessity of an American pretense—the nerdy Ross has completely abandoned his Indian accent in favor of a blandly American dialect—to satisfy customers who are bothered for no reason in particular, and the coalescence with their local personas. Where does one begin and the other end? While the playwright certainly has much to say about the quality of Indian work and cities—the office overlooks a large steaming garbage heap—what captivates is the story, a tale of clashing generations and a remarkably funny techno-thriller in which global identity becomes the chief catalyst.

The generational conflict comes in the form of Avinash (Kamal J. Hans), a forty-year-old supervisor whose collection numbers on the New York floor have been unsatisfactory. As a result, he’s transferred to a more easily manageable floor—appropriately enough, Illinois. Avinash supervises three collectors that share very little in common with him: Vidya, Giri and Ross, a “super collector.” The play has an intriguing overarching metaphor defining the young from the middle aged. Avinash drinks coffee; his employees drink Coke.

Coke versus coffee is an apt metaphor in this instance. The young employees have an inkling-to-burning desire to act more like Americans. The craving is evident in their web habits, parties and expenditures. But no one wants to be someone else more than Ross, whose given name is actually Roshan. After a collection call to a woman who’s amassed twenty-three thousand dollars in credit card debt ends with a music-to-his-ears “thank you,” Ross develops an obsessive infatuation with her, and begins calling her constantly under the auspices of payment advisement.

A relationship appears to have formed between Sara Elizabeth Johnson and Ross–He says “I hear you” instead of “I love you”—but the wisdom of the play is that we’re not privy to what the Americans are saying or thinking. We’re forced to trust whatever it is we hear Ross, Vidya and Giri (Dabu plays a very funny character who is deceptively hardworking and earnest) say, and they are, after all, professional talkers.

Filmer has choreographed the vocal escalation of the phone calls precisely for maximum humor and drama. More often than not, all three are jabbering away at some debt-embroiled Midwesterner who singlehandedly embodies the whole recession, but the audience hones in the most pertinent conversation thanks to subtle shifts in volume and emphasis by the expressive cast of actors.

Sanyal’s Ross is angsty and disturbed, wielding an above-it-all ambivalence to authority. But his puppy dog softness towards Vidya (Gandhi’s portrayal is wisely evenhanded) in the play’s center is what makes his demise so ultimately crushing. As he speaks his final lines of impossible hopefulness, glaring out at the garbage dump he imagines is the utopia of Chicago, his voice wavers uncontrolled between an American and Indian accent, completely unsure of who is he is or what lies ahead. (Johnny Oleksinski)

At Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000. Through February 24.

Review: Failure: A Love Story/Victory Gardens Theater

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

So many people die in “Failure: A Love Story,” a new play by Philip Dawkins that opened on Monday night at Victory Gardens Theater. In 1928, the three Fail sisters, Nelly (Baize Buzan), Jenny June (Emjoy Gavino) and Gertrude (Mildred Marie Langford), respectively die of a statue fall to the head, drowning while swimming across Lake Michigan and losing to the then-terminal consumption.

The girls’ immigrant parents, Marishka and Heiner Failbottom—renamed Marietta (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Henry Fail (Guy Massey) at Ellis Island—were killed by a car accident, plunging into the Chicago River coincidentally on the same day of the S.S. Eastland sinking. Yes, so many people die in “Failure: A Love Story.” But the only death that truly moved me was not that of some person I was forced to care about, but a dumb dog’s.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Equivocation/Victory Gardens Theater

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Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot… So begins the rhyme that commemorates the central event of Bill Cain’s immensely entertaining ode to art, politics and the perils of negotiating both. It’s a play about learning to lie honestly and artfully.

A past-his-prime “Shagspeare”(a reliably deadpan Marc Grapey) is approached by Sir Robert Cecil (a suitably poisonous Mark Montgomery) to write a drama about a current event, the foiled attempt by Catholic rebels to blow up Parliament. Shag is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game of political intrigue and in the process, discovers himself as a man, artist and father. Read the rest of this entry »