Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Titus Andronicus Project/The Home for Wayward Artists and The Public House Theatre

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Titus Project 1

Dear theater-goer, as “The Titus Andronicus Project” at The Public House Theatre demonstrates, never pay good money to see any theatrical production with the word “project” in its title. That epithet suggests some dubious result of modern industrial teamwork, like the Hoover Dam or a three-year ethno-musicological study of the war songs of the Arawak Indians.

This “project” was the fruit of seven months’ labor by an energetic troupe of young actors calling themselves The Home for Wayward Artists, who, with the best intentions, may have believed they could rescue Shakespeare’s poorest play from the contempt voiced by critics such as George Bernard Shaw, who said of  Titus that “Beaumont and Fletcher… wrote a good deal that was pretty disgraceful, but at all events [the later Shakespeare] had educated them out of the possibility of writing Titus Andronicus.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Storm/Moon Fool and Walkabout Theater Company

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McCambridge Dowd­-Whipple

McCambridge Dowd-Whipple (front) and ensemble

RECOMMENDED

At first, given the emphasis on magic and the dirgey, chant-oriented music, one could be forgiven for thinking “Storm,” a collaboration between international collective Moon Fool and Chicago’s Walkabout Theater Company, might be a sneak peak of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s forthcoming adaptation of “The Tempest,” as envisioned by Teller (of Penn & Teller) to the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Yet Walkabout and Moon Fool take more liberties with Shakespeare’s text than I imagine even CST is comfortable with. As it stands, purists may want to avoid this one. Everyone else should come right in.

In this production, the choreography is really the main event, though it can be a double-edged sword depending on your proclivity for the highly interpretive. On one hand, the invigorating movement regularly deepens and abstracts the play’s themes of loneliness and the illusion of agency. On the other, like the titular storm itself, it tends to wash away this production’s foundation. As a work in progress, there is no reason to believe that creator/director Anna-Helena McLean won’t temper her own admirable impulses toward acrobatics in order to better facilitate her fascinating adaptation. As it stands, this iteration is a sophisticated yet feral dance performance that contains illusions to Shakespeare. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well/Stage Left Theatre

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IMG_3699r[1]

Jeremy Trager and Melanie Derleth/Photo: Johnny Knight


RECOMMENDED

If “All’s Well That Ends Well” is, as some critics insist, a “problem comedy,” then director Drew Martin, by setting the play in the Mafia-land of television’s popular series, “The Sopranos,” has smeared, if not completely erased, the comedy’s challenges by darkening the dramatics and upping the merriment, giving Stage Left Theatre a most happy surprise.

In this contemporary setting, it is easier to believe that such a Shakespearian heroine as Helena would be not only allowed, but assisted by familial figures, to publicly pursue, marry and then trick into marital consummation the recalcitrant, reluctant, callow youth of her choosing. Melanie Derleth makes the momentous task of playing Helena seem like a walk in the park; every moment is real and sure, and for the little time she is offstage, the world is a gloomier place. Luke Daigle throws himself fervently at the playing of the most despicable leading youth in the canon; Daigle plays Bertram’s reformation from the heart. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Titus Andronicus/Babes With Blades Theatre Company

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(l to r) Amy E. Harmon, Kimberly Logan/Photo: Steven Townsend

Amy E. Harmon, Kimberly Logan/Photo: Steven Townsend

RECOMMENDED

Sitting in the audience waiting for Babes with Blades’ all-female production of “Titus Andronicus” to begin, I did what any audience member does and took in the set, designed here by Carolyn Voss. I thought to myself “Hmm, grey stone columns, red Nazi-ish banners, long sheets of plastic painted to look like marble… they’re going with a ‘fascism’ interpretation. Okeedoke.”

However two-and-a-half hours later, as the final quarts of blood were being spilt, I took a look again and saw something else. I saw a serial killer’s basement. (The long sheets of plastic give off a very “Christian Bale explaining to Jared Leto the utter sublimity of Huey Lewis and the News” vibe.) And you know what? For a play that has the murderous glee of a “Call of Duty” game with the body count to match, that’s about right. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Marie Antoinette/Steppenwolf

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(left to right) Ericka Ratcliff (Yolande De Polignac), Tamberla Perry (Therese De Lamballe) and ensemble member Alana Arenas/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Underneath its bass-dropping, high-fashion-flouting, sick-opening-credits-having exterior, David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette” is actually pretty old-fashioned. It might as well be an update of Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” It tracks the fall from grace of a ruling figure who, while they might have been a really terrible ruler, is nonetheless deserving of their due as a complex, often sympathetic, human. Substitute Shakespeare’s flowered verse for Adjmi’s Paris-Hilton-gone-clubbing inflections and the two are pretty identical.

What’s fresh about Adjmi’s take on France’s most famously tragic (or is it tragically famous?) queen is that it is tailor-made for a modern understanding of celebrity. Adjmi’s Marie has been born into a life of riches and fame. She knows nothing else, and is as much a product of her environment as she is its progenitor.

Under the gleefully propulsive direction of New York theater artist Robert O’Hara, Steppenwolf’s Marie Antoinette also has the benefit of being portrayed by the fiercely intelligent and elegantly crass Alana Arenas. Her performance alone makes Marie a woman worthy of our attention. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Short Shakespeare! Macbeth/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Covetousness, fueled by ambition and greed, drives the plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth,” where Scotland’s political system is upended twice, with murder the tool to power, and madness in its wake. Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, with a potential run-time as long as three hours not counting intervals, has been trimmed to an unstoppable seventy-five-minute banquet of blood by director Kirsten Kelly, and if the speed of this production requires Macbeth to race to madness so quickly that we lose some of his everyman-quality, and if Lady Macbeth is perfectly bonkers from her first entrance, the sheer swiftness of Kelly’s roller-coaster ride is so gripping that we’re happy to wait for a more psychological production next time, when the design isn’t geared for presentation to younger audiences. Princes and henchmen and murderers race up and down the aisles of the theater, swords drawn and battle-cries piercing. Whispered plotting and heralded assassination land in the audience’s lap and violent moments are staged to be as age-friendly as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Father Ruffian/City Lit Theater

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Nick Lake/Photo: Cole Simon

Nick Lake/Photo: Cole Simon

What annoyed me most about City Lit’s “Father Ruffian” is that it is something very old doing all it can to convince you that it is something new. By condensing Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” Parts One and Two, adding in a dollop of “Holinshed’s Chronicles,” capping it off with a garnish of “Henry V,” throwing in some iPhones and wrapping the whole thing under a new title, adapter and director Paul Edwards attempts an illusion of newness. Only what he’s done here is not new at all. It is something utterly familiar and woefully disappointing: bad Shakespeare.

For the most part, the show is nothing more than a condensed “Henry IV.” The climactic battle with Hotspur happens midway through Act Two and then we are given a greatest-hits version of Part Two and Falstaff’s death in “Henry V,” all within about thirty to forty-five minutes. It is a production of “Henry IV” that manages to throw in modern touches—iPhones, laptops, the Salvation Army, satellite maps—without ever having any modern observations to go with them. The show has one foot in the past, one in the present, and neither on solid ground. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lions in Illyria/Lifeline Theatre

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(l to r) Mykele Callicutt and Brandi Lee/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

Mykele Callicutt and Brandi Lee/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

RECOMMENDED

The publicity materials for “Lions in Illyria” boast that it is a “brand new comedy for the whole family,” and Robert Kauzlaric’s new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” lives up to the claim. While the play is part of Lifeline’s series of children’s shows that run as matinees on the weekends, it isn’t just entertainment for kids. Amanda Delheimer Dimond’s direction of this cleverly crafted script creates a world within which kids and parents alike can thoroughly revel in an hour of live theater.

The story is that of “Twelfth Night” and all the regular characters are present, save one (there’s no Malvolio). The rest of the characters are all represented through the efforts of four actors telling the story as if it were an animal tale. Mykele Callicutt is both Orsino and Sir Toby Belch. Brandi Lee is Viola (here altered to Violet) and Maria. Ryan Stajmiger portrays Sebastian, as well as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who is the butt of the cross-gartering hijinks usually aimed at Malvolio). And Kate McDermott plays Olivia and Antonio. Each actor shifts in and out of their characters and even adopts the narrator’s voice from time to time, and it works seamlessly, never creating confusion, thanks to rapid costume changes and creative staging.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pericles/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Whether you are of the camp that considers “Pericles” a Shakespearean romance or a “problem” play (or both), it is impossible to delve into this dynamic story without acknowledging the illogically insistent, magical happenstances that bring the central characters to near-holy redemption by the final scene. Though it is curious that “Pericles” doesn’t appear in “The First Folio,” and queer that there is scholarly speculation that the first half of the play was the work of a fellow scribe, “Pericles” was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his day, and director David H. Bell’s swashbuckling production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater plays with the flash-and-flesh that would thrill the contemporary audience that flocks to see action-hero movies.

A narrating chorus of actors, playing at multiple roles with wildly adaptive temperaments, appearing and disappearing with roaring speed and hanging from rigging-ropes, creates the pirate film anew, spinning this allegorical journey from myth to human pathos. Aided by the scenic design of Scott Davis, the period-shattering, skin-celebrating costumes of Nan Cibula-Jenkins, the fine verse-nursing of Susan Felder, and the mystical, original music of Henry Marsh (intoned or sung in eerie or celebratory beauty by this company of triple-threats), it matters little that the characters themselves may be birthed in the bath of archetype; this glorious fable is greater than the sum of its parables. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Macbeth/Chicago Opera Theater

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macbeth

RECOMMENDED

Shakespeare’s play of the same name came to be called “The Bard’s Opera” because producers would schedule the widely popular piece when revenues were low, giving the players reason to believe that their talents might shortly need to find a new place of expression, striking such fear into their hearts that it was considered bad luck to speak the name of the title character. “Bloch’s Opera” succeeds in a fearlessly visceral way by leaning heavily on the text that shored up the finances of Elizabethan theaters, superstition be as damned as Macbeth himself. Chicago Opera Theater’s production tells the ancient tale in graphic symbolism while using the sort of multimedia gadgetry that allows both a generation steeped in operatic traditions and a newer audience that must be encouraged if the art form is to continue to be riveted.

Given in a series of seven tableaux, with COT’s slightly cut production listed as having a run time of 110 minutes without intermission, Ernest Bloch’s only operatic contribution proves his zeal for the thematic intricacies and rich orchestral scoring of Wagner. Internal melody soars from the pit in reactive counterpoint to the supple vocal lines, both delivered up in instrumental surprises. Bloch’s pulsing orchestral and choral compositions might have prepared us for this singular masterpiece had it followed a lifetime’s work. But the piece was written early in Bloch’s career, premiering in 1910 when he was only thirty years of age. The fact that it is seldom performed, quietly crouching in the shadow of Verdi’s “Green’s Opera,” is a wrong that COT artistic director Andreas Mitisek, conductor Francesco Milioto and Apollo Chorus director Stephen Alltop illuminate. The combined effect of Mitisek’s sexy direction, Milioto’s musical-gumshoe’s instinct for locating and bringing to justice every ounce of romanticism, and Alltop’s unbroken track record for training his chorus to express such varieties of style and color that it rivals any other in the city on this under-appreciated work should cause us all to shake our heads. Read the rest of this entry »

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