Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Hedda Gabler/Writers Theatre

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Kate Fry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Kate Fry/Photo: Michael Brosilow


That the most famous image emanating from a Norwegian mind, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” is an existential wail seems appropriate for a land where darkness weighs so heavily, both in nature and in the soul. The eighteen-hour winter nights seem to foster a surplus of brooding about the meaning of life, of boredom and of alcohol-fueled therapy offset by a surplus of social cheerfulness by day (so say I as an American of three-quarters Norwegian ancestry). Though Munch’s enduring image was created a few years after Henrik Ibsen’s play, its spirit resides forcefully in the main character of “Hedda Gabler.”

The scream rages internally in Hedda Gabler, one of the most complex, fascinating characters in theater, yet in Kate Fry’s masterful performance in the Writers Theatre production, we hear its muted presence throughout. Crafted more than a century ago in Victorian Europe, Hedda is as modern a woman as any creation today, a newlywed completely disenchanted with the mores of her gender’s supposed predilection for homemaking and bearing children. She has contempt for the very idea of love. The only hint of passion in Hedda’s world comes via the troubled intellectual Eilert Lovborg: they are soul mates manifesting in opposites: he out of control, she always in control, he a social outcast, she carefully holding onto certain small social formalities even as she rejects the larger expectations of the world in which she lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Old Man and the Old Moon/PigPen Theatre Co. at Writers Theatre

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Ryan Melia with Matt Nuernberger/Photo by Liz Lauren

Ryan Melia with Matt Nuernberger/Photo by Liz Lauren


“The Old Man and the Old Moon” is a studied, artful exercise in whimsy and innocence that’s as successful as they come, if you like that sort of thing. This is one of those shows that will appeal deeply to some audiences and alienate others, all depending on how charming you find a wide-eyed, sincere ethos and a flamboyant handmade aesthetic. New York’s PigPen Theatre Co., as a company in residence at Writers, teams up with Stuart Carden to present a slightly edited version of their hit 2012 play to Chicago. “The Old Man” is a fairy tale about a leaking moon, nautical misadventures, fake identity, memory, and marriage (other quirky elements include steampunk dribbles, life in the belly of a fish, and mystical cities);  the play’s major defect is its sprawling, crowded plot, which even at under ninety minutes makes it feel like three or four fables mushed together. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Still All In The Timing: Playwright David Ives Is Everywhere In Chicago

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IvesBy Johnny Oleksinski

Playwright and Chicago native son David Ives is receiving a rolling homecoming by happenstance this season and next. Last winter, Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented his adaptation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” called “The School for Lies.” Next March, the Goodman Theatre will stage the Chicago premiere of his thunderous Best Play Tony Award-nominated “Venus in Fur” (Nina Arianda won Best Actress). And coming up later this month is “The Liar,” Ives’ modernly classic take on Pierre Corneille’s little-known “Le Menteur” at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe.
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Review: Yellow Moon/Writers’ Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Spotted: Chicago cozying up to Scottish playwright David Greig. Ever since the two lovebirds first met during the National Theatre of Scotland’s touring “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” a coup de cœur, the long-distance relationship has quickly intensified. Greig’s work returned to Chicago a few months later when Remy Bumppo mounted his adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” and now Writers’ Theatre begins its production of the playwright’s “Yellow Moon.” Get a room, you two! Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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PLAYERSThough we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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Review: The Letters/Writers’ Theatre

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Borrowed from its own script, “it’s a blessing to be satisfied with so little” is an excellent way of describing “The Letters” at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. Short and sweet at just seventy-five minutes, John Lowell’s 2008 potboiler transforms the bookshop theater space into a 1930s Russian government office in its regional debut with direction by critically acclaimed Kimberly Senior. Set under the relentless rule of Stalin prior to WWII, the Orwellian fear of government institutions smothering its citizens was all too real.

“The Letters” is not necessarily a period piece, rather a study in dramatic structure. Relying on the interview device, Lowell delicately coaxes guilt out of his two characters. Immediately at unease, government transcriber Anna (Kate Fry) nervously fidgets while waiting in her boss’ office. Once the brazen and smug Director (Mark L. Montgomery) enters, tension starts to build. 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: The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead/Writers’ Theatre

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The dialogue of Robert Hewett’s “The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead” is not particularly well-written, and the story, agreeably reminiscent of a daytime made-for-television movie, is rife with gaping plot holes. But the key gimmick of the play, a light drama sympathetically digging into the consequences of mindless adherence to gossip and the sublime interconnectivity of mankind, renders the emotionally pure yet overcomplicated story all but unnecessary to the one-woman show’s prosperity. “Blonde,” being a cleverly disguised circus act, requires the play’s leading lady to be a savvy contortionist,  manipulating her person to become a four-year-old boy, a frail elderly woman, a desperate housewife, and a masculine scumbag over two hours.

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Review: A Little Night Music/Writers’ Theatre

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Jonathan Weir and Shannon Cochran/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Although Writers’ Theatre is celebrating its twentieth anniversary season, it only began performing musicals a few seasons ago and with mixed results. But with William Brown on board to direct an all-new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” perfectly suited to its intimate stage, Writers is giving us a musical production worthy of an important anniversary year.

“A Little Night Music” is the closest Sondheim work to an operetta, with its consistent use of waltz-like rhythms—virtually everything is in triple meter—and some of his most melodic material, including his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” It is also Sondheim’s most elaborate use of the kind of counterpoint that Leonard Bernstein had experimented with in the climax of “West Side Story,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Musically, it ranks among Sondheim’s most ambitious and adventurous works.

That the acting would be of the highest caliber was no surprise, for that is a Writers’ Theatre trademark. But that the musical component should be rendered so exquisitely was a welcome surprise given the unevenness of past musical productions. Musical director Valerie Maze—who also conducts from the piano and celeste—and her extraordinary tiny orchestra (including a tucked-away harp) render Sondheim’s lush score with surprising richness for such small forces. And each performer sings the score superbly even in the complex ensemble numbers, no small feat for how removed the performers often are from the orchestra. Read the rest of this entry »