Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Othello/The Gift Theatre

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(L to R) Kareem Bandealy  and Michael Patrick Thornton

Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton

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“O these men, these men!” sighs Desdemona (played by Brittany Burch), who is soon to be murdered by her jealous husband, Othello. She is confiding her bafflement to her friend Emilia (Darci Nalepa), who will meet the same fate at the hands of her husband, Iago. Othello’s paranoid rage and Iago’s duplicity and hatred are like the storm roiling the sea around the play’s island setting, chaotic and destructive forces that crash down hardest on the women these soldiers of empire are pledged to protect.

The Gift Theatre’s clear, strong and elegant version of “Othello” captures both the furious momentum and thematic nuances of Shakespeare’s examination of race, patriarchy and authority. Director Jonathan Berry and his skilled cast and crew have brought to the Gift’s tiny stage a production that grips us from the first moment and does not let go. Dan Stratton’s abstract and austere set, Christian Gero’s evocative musical segues and Sarah Hughey’s subtle, noir-style lighting never distract us from the dramatic essentials of language, movement and gesture—which is to say, the acting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Piccolo Theatre

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Jude Hansen/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III

Jude Hansen/Photo: Robert Erving Potter III

Yes, yet another production of Shakespeare’s anarcho-pagan comedy that dares to ask the question: Is there anything less romantic than patriarchy, religion and capitalism—i.e., the forces that structure society? In a system that translates human relations into property relations and that sees sexuality more as a problem to be managed than a gift to savor, it’s a wonder that the species finds the will to keep itself going. Sometimes it takes a little supernatural assistance.

As “Dream” begins, Hermia (Diana Coates) is being guilt-tripped by her father (David W.M. Kelch) for her unwillingness to marry his choice, Demetrius (Jake Jones), because she prefers Lysander (Elliot Baker). Judging the case is Duke Theseus of Athens (Michael Saubert, Jr.), who declares that she must either obey dad or face death or the nunnery. Hermia points out that Demetrius has been seen running around with Helena (Deborah Craft), who remains madly in love with him. But the law is the law, says Theseus. He is not in a compromising mood, as he has just conquered the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and seeks to transform his fiercely feminist war booty into a loving and devoted little wifey. 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: Henry VIII/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

There is churchly ambiance to “Henry VIII,” which opened Wednesday night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Catholic clergymen clad in red vestments descend the central aisle to the stage in grand and contrived fashion. There’s enough shimmering hung fabric for another papal coronation, and the palpable vibe among the attendees is one of religious obligation—a common drive for Shakespearean theatergoers, believing the Bard to always be of crucial cultural significance, no matter the delivery. That push is even stronger in this particular instance.

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Review: Measure for Measure/Goodman Theatre

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James Newcomb/Photo: Liz Lauren

James Newcomb/Photo: Liz Lauren

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As the curtain rises on a nun in rapturous reflection, with the pulsing sounds of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” scoring a sprawling, bawdy set of dirty neon and dirty sex behind her—various other states of rapture—and a man, post-coital with his hooker, holding a pistol to his head, the fever dreams of Calixto Bieito’s “Camino Real” so easily recur that you might feel like you’ve returned for another dose of the Spanish director’s controversial staging at the Goodman last season. But then, with its decadent seventies setting, its garish pimp clothes and graphic glimpses of illicit sex acts taking place upstairs, Steppenwolf’s recent “Hot L Baltimore” comes to mind as well. So too, with its moments of slow-motion choreographed ensemble entrances is a bit of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” in the mix. But lest you think that this production of the Bard’s “problem play” is derivative, know this: It is all Robert Falls’ “Measure For Measure.” A fair bit of William Shakespeare, too, but I’d suggest that never in the history of this play has such a raw and raucous production been seen as Falls hoovers in a half millennium of influences and spits out something wholly original. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Othello: The Remix/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Wedging a rap into William Shakespeare’s plays is well-tread territory. Every so often, a hoodied Hamlet will hyperactively soliloquize the usual six speeches verbatim with a basic beat that safely scratches at the idea of hip-hop; such productions’ raison d’etre is to showcase that Shakespeare’s twisted tongue isn’t so far removed from modern rap, and transitorily neither are you and hoodied Hamlet. However, while the audience and Hamlet may be, forever, a little more than kin, Shakespearean verse and rap are separated by about four hundred years of cultural upheaval. Anybody with an FM radio and a bookshelf knows that iambic pentameter and a prerecorded bass drum do not a rap make.

But the newest, liveliest music can absolutely activate theatrical storytelling if the actors own the words they express and style they emanate. Those factors are impressively evident in the Q Brothers’ thrilling “Othello: The Remix,” which opened on Saturday night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The preposterously talented writing and performing team (alongside Jackson Doran and Postell Pringle) have updated and completely rewritten “Othello” in hip-hop, rap and R&B. And most admirably, these characters’—rappers, girlfriends, geeks, producers, entourages—music is completely true to genre; It’s not a compromised, cutesy approximation of hip-hop to appease happy-go-lucky pier-patrons. The Q Brothers got guts. Read the rest of this entry »

#M4M: @RobertFalls201 and @JohnnyNewcity Talk @GoodmanTheatre’s “Measure for Measure”

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

By Johnny Oleksinski

On January 28, @RobertFalls201 tweets, “Day before rehearsal begin & completely panicked; haven’t prepared enough, have no idea how to START & shouldn’t someone else be directing?”

Wait, the Robert Falls? The same Robert Falls whose “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and whose “Iceman Cometh” made Chicago ticket-holders the envy of the theatergoing world? That Robert Falls is “completely panicked?”

Yes, the Goodman artistic director regularly tweets the kind of thought-provoking artistic insights that were once confined to program notes, posthumously published memoir-festos and lucky late-night exchanges at the bar, but are now available on the web browsers and mobile devices of anyone who cares to follow. Falls nostalgically compares the sensation of tweeting to his youthful passion for radio; It has certainly opened up the artistic process and personal life of a powerful and gifted director. Yet, despite this useful new conversational mechanism, it’s still rare for an artistic director to have a Twitter account let alone actually make use of it.

Falls and I sit down in the Goodman’s posh Patrons’ Lounge—a room he says he’s only been in a handful of times before and humorously compares to a W Hotel—to talk about his new production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and about his second life on Twitter: two seemingly unrelated topics, but truthfully, all I know of Falls’ production up till now came from his funny and oft-probing tweets. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hamlet/Writers’ Theatre

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Scott Parkinson (Hamlet) and Shannon Cochran (Gertrude)

Writers’ Theatre presented such a memorable performance of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” a few seasons back that it seemed only fitting that the company should mount a full-scale “Hamlet.” The intimate North Shore theater is perfect for revealing the multiple layers of introspection that the Bard’s most famous play requires.

Although director Michael Halberstam’s production is not a contemporized setting in terms of sets and costumes, it is quite contemporary in terms of its outlook and even its sound world (the court likes background jazz at its parties). There is no ambiguity about Scott Parkinson’s Danish prince being mad: the dark opening scene is cut altogether to dispense with any subtext of a real ghost and instead skips directly ahead to open the play in a bright court in motion around a Hamlet that cannot cope, where it is quickly clear that he is the something rotten in the state of Denmark. Claudius and Gertrude seem so regally at home and so reasonable that Hamlet comes off the villain. To heighten how out of touch Hamlet is, his soliloquies occur outside of time and space while others remain around him, but they literally stop to loud sound cues distractingly indicating precise moments of their freeze-frame and his take-off. Yes, there are some glances to the audience, but this is a thoroughly narcissistic Hamlet who thinks and cares only about himself. (Oddly, this same device even extended over into the soliloquies of other characters.) It is an odd and interesting take, but one which has to be grafted on to a truncated text to work. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cymbeline/The RIFF Collective

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Outdoor theater is fun but has its drawbacks; the most talented ensemble  fights for its life against ambient distraction. “Ah fair Imogen, my life, my wife… THIS IS THE ROUTE 50 DAMEN BUS.” Between the cicadas and the sirens, RIFF Collective faces serious challenges.

And against the odds, they succeed in a raggedy, charming way. It’s theater at its most basic, and that’s a compliment. The set is non-existent, the lighting, props and costumes are minimal. Shakespeare’s script is not his best; act one’s hefty exposition is clunky. There’s some confusing double- and triple-casting. The stage manager had to kick a passerby off the king’s throne. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Troilus and Cressida/American Players Theatre

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Michael Perez, Nate Burger, Chris Sheard and Edgar Miguel Sanchez/Photo: Carissa Dixon

In undertaking four plays in three days up at Spring Green’s APT, the odds favored at least one dud. But on paper, “Troilus and Cressida” did not look to be that one. Not only was this the first production ever of this play for this Shakespeare-centric company, but acclaimed Chicago director William Brown was at the helm. At best, this tale of love and betrayal set against the Trojan War gave me a chance to brush up on my Greek history; at worst it challenged my wakefulness through all of its three hours. Though I was perhaps jaded by the riveting performance of “Skylight” I’d just seen at the matinee, Brown and company did little to bring the Bard’s “problem play” out of the woods. In general, the actors were fairly monotonous in their adequacy, failing to inject conversational fluency into the Elizabethan text, and the play’s action was more detached than dangerous. Boy, though, Shakespeare sure thought Achilles was a heel. Read the rest of this entry »