Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Isaac’s Eye/Writers Theatre

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Ledo, Grapey, Banks (background), Hooper, horiz

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Lucas Hnath is not concerned with getting it right. He’s concerned about getting it true. From the outset of his devious new play “Isaac’s Eye” he states that this story is filled with “ether”: the unseen stuff that allows us to understand the things that are true. Hnath has taken this idea from his play’s subject, Isaac Newton, and extrapolated it to encompass the work itself. We are told that most of what we are about to see did not happen. The play even helps us to distinguish fact from fiction by having the actors write everything in the play that is factually true on a chalkboard. It’s as though Hnath is saying “we’ll leave the history to the lecture hall and get on with the business of art.” And get on with it he certainly does.

I don’t think that “Isaac’s Eye” could ask for a better Chicago-area home than it finds in Writers Theatre. Their particular blend of skill, empathy and wit is a perfect match for Hnath’s humane but intellectually ambitious script. Out of one part fact and two parts whole cloth, “Isaac’s Eye” spins a tale of a young, hungry entirely unknown Newton (Jurgen Hooper). After somewhat vaguely agreeing to marry his longtime (and long-suffering) companion Catherine (Elizabeth Ledo), Isaac promptly has her contact an old friend of her father’s, Robert Hooke (Marc Grapey), a scientist extraordinaire and member of Isaac’s ticket out of Nowheresville: The Royal Society. After reading Isaac’s papers Hooke is immediately threatened by the young man’s considerable intellect and agrees to meet him in person, the better to shut him down. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Days Like Today/Writers Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Laura Eason, book writer of Writers Theatre’s new world premiere musical “Days Like Today,” says of playwright Charles L. Mee’s work, from which “Days” borrows and burnishes, “It is epic and expansive and messy and highly theatrical and deeply thoughtful.” Composer and lyricist Alan Schmuckler writes, “It felt to me that music would make manifest the interior lives of (his) characters, as they experienced moments of love and loss that I recognized from my own life. Music felt like a good fit. That was the start.”

And indeed it was. Schmuckler’s musical based on Mee’s work was given a reading which Writers artistic director Michael Halberstam attended; Halberstam invited Schmuckler to work further on the piece with Writers, and Halberstam brought Eason on board to write the book. Staged readings and workshops, refocusing, a new book, new music, and something altogether other, and yet explorative of a direction in which the lyric theater is now traveling, was born. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Dance of Death/Writers Theatre

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Shannon Cochran and Philip Earl Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Shannon Cochran and Philip Earl Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Having spent time in the mid-1880s dipped in some sort of madness reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter, August Strindberg dug himself out of his personal rabbit hole and continued to fill the robust portfolio of theatrical works which made him one of the most prolific playwrights of his time. In 1900 he penned “The Dance of Death,” originally a two-parter, later reduced to an exploration of the first half alone. This later version is now enjoying a turn at Writers Theatre’s space in Books on Vernon in Glencoe. The tiny room at the back of the bookstore would surely have pleased Strindberg as a performance space as he founded the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm in 1907, specifying many rules for the manner in which the space would be used, among them that the stage was to be unusually small, with a minimal number of seats, assisting in—and insisting on—giving the audience a greater connection to the work. This bookstore’s back-room theater has fifty seats; a playing space so intimate that, in this instance, coal piled in a bucket near the stove on set can be smelt by every audience member. There is no chance for distance, either for the spectators or the players. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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

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“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 »