Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Season On The Line/The House Theatre of Chicago

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When I tell you that the House Theatre’s newest show is a theatrical adaptation of “Moby Dick” that is also about a theater company attempting to put on a theatrical adaptation of “Moby Dick” and is also a three-and-a-half-hour-long minor epic and is also a meditation on the evolution of the House Theatre itself while also being a meditation on the relationship between theater and theater criticism and is last but not least heavily steeped in the minutiae of the Chicago storefront theater scene, I know exactly what you are going to say. You are going to say “Oh that is exactly the kind of show that I have been longing to see and I will definitely be buying my ticket immediately.” Well here’s the thing, you hypothetical straw-man sarcastic jerk: it is, and you should, and yes immediately.

Written by Shawn Pfautsch and directed by Jess McLeod, “Season On The Line” is indeed all the things I have mentioned above. It is clearly not a show that is afraid of appealing to too broad an audience, even as it actually is a show with broad appeal. It is a story about being in love with this crazy thing that you do whilst simultaneously realizing that being in love with this thing is in and of itself totally crazy and you should probably start doing something else before this destroys you. It is one-hundred-and-ten-percent a play about a play and also one-hundred-percent a show just about being a human being trying to connect with other human beings. And at three-and-a-half hours, it is actually able to be 200-percent of a show, without ever seeming longer than, oh, say, two-and-a-half. (Try telling someone that a show was a “fast” three-and-a-half hours some time. It gets a great laugh. Or an expletive. Or both.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Nutcracker/The House Theatre of Chicago

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Christmas merriment is in full swing at the home of young Clara and her family in the fantastically staged opening scene of The House Theatre’s musical retelling of “The Nutcracker.” Twirling in a dizzying array, Clara, her parents, the eye-patched Uncle Drosselmeyer and their party guests exuberantly dance around the shiny Christmas tree (accompanied by a surprisingly lush four-person orchestra) as they eagerly await the holiday homecoming of Clara’s soldier brother Fritz. The good cheer, however, comes to a screeching halt when another soldier makes a chilly entrance instead, bearing a folded American flag. It’s an incredibly intense moment for a children’s show, but the production wisely trusts its young audience to come along for a more somber take on the beloved holiday tale that will pay off in heartwarming, if not emotional, ways.

Fast-forward to a year later and grief is still shackling Clara’s (Paige Collins) home. Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) arrives unannounced a week before the family’s annual Christmas bash, only to disappointingly learn that this year’s party has been called off. It’s clear not all is right in the home as Clara’s parents (Benjamin Sprunger and Brenda Barrie) seem emotionally disconnected and unwilling to acknowledge the holiday season in any capacity. Worried about his young niece, Drosselmeyer gives her an early Christmas present: the eponymous Nutcracker. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ploughed Under: An American Songbook/House Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

There’s disagreement on exactly what mood House Theatre is trying to achieve within its campfire concert, “Ploughed Under: An American Songbook.” The upstairs theater at the Chopin is configured into a nightclub, atmospherically well-suited to a musty rockabilly gig or the Country Bear Jamboree. From the stage, five long wooden tables reach out like rays of sunlight and the rest of the large space is studded with round tables, each with a burning candle. There is some raked seating in the back, but that’s for me and the other lepers. All in all, it’s a pretty happy room.
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Review: The Iron Stag King: Part One/The House Theatre of Chicago

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Photo credit: Michael Brosilow


Wizards. Pirates. Vikings. Politics. Tracy Letts voicing a giant dragon. The first show of the House Theatre’s eleventh season is nothing if not ambitious. Striving to be epic, playwrights Chris Mathews and Nathan Allen (who also serves as artistic director of The House and director of this production) have sought to cram a multitude of themes, characters and backstory into the two-and-a-half-hour part one of the “Iron Stag King” trilogy. Intertwining the legends of King Arthur with early American politics and fantasy sensibilities, the story follows storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain) as he leads a stalwart (if unsure) young man (Brandon Ruiter), a team of warriors and a fanboy (Ben Hertel, providing ample comedic relief) to reclaim a magic hammer and thus the crown of the land. With seating arranged in an arena-like square around an open set allowing for four entrances and exits, the action sequences are thrilling and immediate. Read the rest of this entry »

Rehearsal Report: House Theatre’s “Iron Stag King” Crawls Dungeons, Battles Dragons and More…

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By Eric Shoemaker

House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews have partnered to create the epic trilogy “The Iron Stag King,” which Allen describes as the tale of “Arthur, in a parallel proto-America.” This pioneer American/Norse/British fantasy adventure, with over thirty cast and staff members, was slated for production at the end of their tenth season, but was pushed back when “Death and Harry Houdini” went into an extended run as one of the most popular shows of the year.

Ten years old, House Theatre creates immersive experiences for viewers. “There is no moat separating the audience from the performance. Our goal is, when the audience leaves, for them to feel less alone,” says Allen. The company is chomping at the bit to put on its dungeon-crawling, violent show, which is filled with zany segmented metal animal puppets, flying lights, algorithmic sounds and Tolkienesque costumes. The writers shared their hopes, dreams, and tongue-in-cheek qualms about their massive Dungeons and Dragons meets cowboys and Indians baby in interviews during and after “Iron Stag King”’s first rehearsal. 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: Cyrano/The House Theatre

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Most anyone is likely to be familiar with the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, even if they’ve never seen Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play. The Steve Martin adaptation “Roxanne” was a popular film, and the play’s balcony scene is rivaled only by the one from “Romeo and Juliet.” Ubiquity aside, however, Matt Hawkins’ new version strips the story down to its iconic bare essentials, making for a swashbuckling, irreverent evening of heroism and romance. Read the rest of this entry »

The House Theatre announces 2011-2012 season

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Here’s the press release from House Theatre:

The House Theatre of Chicago celebrates its 10th year with a season of unbelievable new plays!

CHICAGO, IL—The House Theatre of Chicago has been creating Amazing Feats of Storytelling for 10 years! Today, The House is thrilled to announce its most exciting season to date. The season begins with Cyrano. This new adaptation of the classic story of the world’s greatest poet-swordsman, Cyrano De Bergerac, is written and directed by 4-time Jeff Award Winning director Matt Hawkins. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Nutcracker/The House Theatre

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Carla Kessler/Photo: Michael Brosilow


The House’s remount of their successful 2007 holiday show is a very loose adaptation of ETA Hoffman’s classic story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, ” and yet its prologue is still almost ironically evocative of the Tchaikovsky ballet. Cheerful dancing around the Christmas tree turns to tragedy, however, when news arrives of the son’s death at war. A year later, no Christmas party almost means no Christmas, until a surprise visit from Uncle Drosselmeyer, with a gift for Clara of a nutcracker that looks like her brother, upsets the somber balance of the household. The adaptation by company members Phillip C. Klapperich and Jake Minton cleverly psychologizes the tale, spinning the magical battle against darkness and Rat Kings as one against childhood grief and family wounds. The brisk, lively staging never lets you linger on such heavy thoughts for too long, but the actors all have great fun with each other, with the script, and with the audience. You’ll believe in magic again. (Neal Ryan Shaw)

The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division, (773)251-2195. Through December 26.

Review: Thieves Like Us/The House Theatre of Chicago

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The House Theatre of Chicago understands how to engage a live audience. Setting up an elaborate multipurpose two-story set, avoiding unnecessary props, providing a live soundtrack and speeding up the action with well-organized montages are only a few of the ways that their latest offering—the gangster drama “Thieves Like Us”—highlights their dedication to keeping theater relevant and exciting. The only downside here is the somewhat generic feel of the story itself. Adapted from the 1937 Edward Anderson novel of the same name, Damon Kiely’s script follows a group of escaped convicts robbing banks throughout Oklahoma. The central character, Bowie Bowers (John Byrnes), falls for the sweet-but-tough Keechie (Paige Hoffman) and the duo attempt to escape the life of crime that they’ve become a part of. Though the story flows nicely, it can’t help but start to feel too familiar before it’s over. But even the slightly predictable ending is offset by the explosively creative staging of the finale. (Zach Freeman)

The House Theatre at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division, (773)251-2195, through October 30.