Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Way West/Steppenwolf

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Caroline Neff, Dierdre O’Conell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff, Deirdre O’Connell and Zoe Perry/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Late in the second act of playwright Mona Mansour’s marvelous “The Way West,” a pizza-delivery guy gets into a tussle over declined credit cards with the play’s protagonists and exclaims, “At least I’m solvent!” It’s one of those wonderfully terrible moments in the theater, when the truth slices like a lawnmower gone amok, taking out not only the subjects of the insult as well as its deliverer, who’s just admitted that he’s thirty-three years old and has lost his “real” job, but also us, the audience, as we realize how trivial our American life has become, where we measure our self-worth and sense of accomplishment on whether we pay our credit card bills on time, on whether we’re solvent.

Few things create more stress in marriages, in families, in life than money and the lack thereof, yet our theater so rarely addresses commonplace financial matters, preferring instead to kick around the more easily dramatic, if far less universal, arcs of corruption, fraud and theft. This simultaneous freshness and familiarity of subject make this world-premiere production especially compelling. 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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Critic’s Postcard: Chicago Theater Takes New York City

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“A Twist of Water”/ Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Johnny Oleksinski

I arrived in New York City to an unexpectedly premature November blizzard, the biggest effect of an ill-timed nor’easter. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. After all, this past month New York’s relationship to nature has been understatedly complicated. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New York was an unusual, familiar and inspiring place to be for a few days, especially given my trip’s purpose: to review three plays that ventured eastward from Chicago. For me, the shimmering snow was cold comfort.

“It’s probably snowing, right? Two in three chance it is,” jokes Noah (Stef Tovar) in Route 66 Theatre’s homegrown love letter to Chicago, “A Twist of Water.” In his first direct-address monologue, Noah, a high-school teacher and father, establishes his Windy City dwelling with brotherly sarcastic kinship. The entire audience of New Yorkers sitting in 59e59 Theater Off Broadway laughed, Chicago’s own meteorological reputation apparently preceding itself. Phew. Of all the productions I’d come to review, I was most unnerved by the potential response to Caitlin Montanye Parrish’s work, condensed but potent, that captures the spiritual essence of this city better than any Chicago-set play I’ve ever seen. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2012: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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Darren Criss (#4) with Team StarKid

With our criteria shifted back to artistic accomplishment in theater, dance, comedy and opera this year, our task got infinitely tougher. Because while the number of performing venues grows at a steady rate, the increase in the number of noteworthy artists seems to grow exponentially. For everyone we name on the list below, we had to leave off five, an embarrassment of riches for Chicago. We made a conscious effort to introduce a meaningful number of new faces to the list this year; the necessary absences should not be construed as a loss of worthiness as a consequence. We often find trends when we do the research these lists require; this year we’re starting to see a more meaningful effort to redefine performance itself in the internet age, from the runaway success of StarKids, to the more calculated endeavors of Silk Road. So what defines a “player”? Consider it some complex stew of career achievement, recent “heat” and, in some cases, rising stardom.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Dennis Polkow

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Review: Penelope/Steppenwolf Theatre

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Logan Vaughn, Yasen Peyankov, Scott Jaeck and Tracy Letts/Photo: Michael Brosilow


In Steppenwolf’s latest, playwright Enda Walsh paints a bleak picture of masculinity and what men must endure in today’s world: the cruelty of time, the savagery of economic survival, the political maneuverings of love.

Fitz (Tracy Letts), Quinn (Yasen Peyankov), Dunne (Scott Jaeck) and Burns (Ian Barford) are the remaining suitors vying for Penelope’s hand. They are running out of time; they’ve all dreamt of Odysseus’ return and their subsequent murders. The suitors work together to woo the queen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Clybourne Park/Steppenwolf

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Karen Aldridge, Cliff Chamberlain and Stephanie Childers/Photo: Michael Brosilow


A brilliant tribute to “A Raisin in the Sun,” Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning play consists of two acts that bookend Hansberry’s drama about a struggling black family’s poignant attempt to make a better life for themselves in the white enclave of 406 Clybourne Street. Norris sets “Clybourne Park” in this very house, where the first act portrays the previous owners’ tragic reasons for moving—and getting back at the neighborhood by selling the house to blacks. The second half jumps fifty years forward to the present day, where the neighborhood has become all-black, financially debilitated and ripe for gentrification in the form of a seemingly well-meaning white couple who would demolish the house, bringing with them new politically correct phrases that only partially cover the same old tensions and motivations. “You can’t live in a principle,” is the chorus of the play. Read the rest of this entry »

Ensemble Unveiled: How Steppenwolf gets its members

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By Brian Hieggelke

The first thing you notice when you meet Martha Lavey is her hair. She’s a very petite woman, but you realize that later. Her hair is epic, a nest of swirling, curling grays and blacks that give her visage an otherworldliness, a sense of supernatural wisdom, like Mother Earth. Mother Steppenwolf. She’s been artistic director since 1995, far longer than anyone else in that role, and she’s presided over the maturation of the company from a troubled, supremely talented teenager into an institution likely to outlive its founders. She’s one of the most powerful people in Chicago theater, yet she’s as gentle a spirit as you’re likely to meet. One of the powers she wields, or at least holds the secret to, is ensemble membership, the Holy Grail of Chicago theater for many.

There are forty-three ensemble members, many of them dating back to the early days of the company. Since Steppenwolf’s formal inception in 1975, the cumulative total, including those (rarely) lost to attrition, is forty-eight. Lavey says there’s no formulaic way in choosing ensemble members, no set number of engagements required. “It’s more that the desire to have an individual in the ensemble is generated out of—this person brings something unique to the ensemble,” she says, “be that a casting niche—age, type, etcetera. Then there’s the feeling of whether this person is a good community member. Do we feel like that person has an ensemble sensibility? And it’s fairly easy to pick up on that.” Read the rest of this entry »

Steppenwolf Theatre Company announces 2011-2012 season

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Here’s the press release from Steppenwolf:

Steppenwolf Theatre Company Announces 2011/12 Subscription Season

CHICAGO (March 2, 2011) – Steppenwolf Theatre Company is pleased to announce its 2011/12 Subscription Season.  Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 2 at 11 am.   Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 5 of Everything 2010: Stage

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Krapp's Last Tape/Photo: Liz Lauren

Top 5 Shows
“The Brother/Sister Plays,” Steppenwolf
“August: Osage County,” Broadway In Chicago
“Hughie”/”Krapp’s Last Tape,” Goodman
“1001,” Collaboraction
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Steppenwolf
—Brian Hieggelke

Top 5 Play Revivals
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” Writers’ Theatre
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Steppenwolf
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Steppenwolf Young Adult
“Private Lives,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater
“After the Fall,” Eclipse Theatre
—Dennis Polkow

Top 5 Performances
Brian Dennehy, “Hughie”/”Krapp’s Last Tape,” Goodman
Karen Janes Woditsch, “To Master the Art,” TimeLine
Tracy Letts, “American Buffalo,” Steppenwolf
Amy Morton, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Steppenwolf
Mary Beth Fisher, “Seagull,” Goodman
—Brian Hieggelke

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Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf/Steppenwolf

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Amy Morton, Tracy Letts/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Edward Albee’s iconic play from 1962, which won the Tony Award for Best Play and soon after became an acclaimed movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and her frequent husband Richard Burton, is a boxing match for acting heavyweights, where the fighters spar with words.

George and Martha, just home from a faculty party, are engaged in playful but barbed repartee that at first recalls the likes of Tracy and Hepburn and other savage wits of Hollywood lore. A new young professor Nick and his wife Honey have been invited over for cocktails after the party, though they are really just prey for George and Martha. The entire play unfolds, as the war between George and Martha escalates into something far too ugly for the silver screen, in the increasingly claustrophobic confines of their home—designed with appropriate New England academic shagginess by Todd Rosenthal—in the wee wee hours of morning.

After two decades of marriage, Martha and George are despicable creatures, or as George tells Nick, who is alarmed by the unfettered hostility, “we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits.”

Tracy Letts’ George is a worn-out shell of a man, beaten down by the one-two punch of professional disappointments suffered in the face of a father-in-law who rules the kingdom as president of the university where George toils in the history department, and a wife who seems to define her existence by letting George know what a failure he is compared to her father. “A simp,” she calls him. George half-heartedly amuses himself with social swordplay,  slicing up anyone in his range with an effortless nonchalance. Letts skillfully gives his George an air of perpetual disengagement that suggests that even this verbal gamesmanship bores him, that he’s using a mere fraction of his wit. Read the rest of this entry »