Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Players 2016: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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“Out with the old, in with the new,” is one of the many well-intentioned platitudes you hear frequently this time of year. Personally, I find that type of sharp-turn resolution a bit difficult to manage. As I see it, change is fluid; the past informs the present and portends the future. Newness grows organically out of the well-tilled soil of history. This also happens to be the way I think about Chicago’s arts community. The open terrain currently being transformed by our promising young upstarts would not exist had the heavy lifters of previous years not worked to cultivate it. And so it is in this space that we honor both parties by highlighting the artists who have served as great beacons and those whose stars are just beginning to rise. What follows is the current crop of our city’s fifty most moving, most shaking, most dream-making Players in theater, dance, comedy and opera.  Make a resolution you actually want to keep: check them out! (Kevin Greene)

Players was written by Zach Freeman, Kevin Greene, Sharon Hoyer, Aaron Hunt and Loy Webb
Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Read the rest of this entry »

Review: No Wake/Route 66 Theatre Company

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Stef Tovar and Lia Mortensen/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

Stef Tovar and Lia Mortensen/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

The dead-child drama has become a genre unto itself. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, admittedly an odd thing to say about a category of theater focused on untimely death. Nevertheless, these plays congeal around certain archetypes and motifs. Take for example, William Donnelly’s “No Wake,” currently receiving its Midwestern premiere at Route 66, a studious and brilliantly written, if slightly cold-blooded, example of this increasingly popular genre. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Marjorie Prime/Writers Theatre

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Kate Fry,      Mary Ann Thebus,      Nathan Hosner

Kate Fry, Mary Ann Thebus and Nathan Hosner/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Last night, after making the trek to and from Glencoe, my girlfriend and I walked to our local grocery store for a snack. Standing before a formidable display of pears, I asked, “Which one do I get?” “Do you have your phone?” she responded. I had intentionally left it at home, something you too might consider after watching “Marjorie Prime.”

“What would we have done in the nineties?” I countered. While I meant it as a joke, I was briefly filled with a kind of “can’t go home again” awareness. It’s a feeling the characters of this small, heartbreaking play encounter again and again as they go from full bloom to withering under the unflinching auspices of time. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Disgraced/Goodman Theatre

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Bernard White (Amir),      Nisi Sturgis (Emily),      Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane

Bernard White, Nisi Sturgis, Zakiya Young and J. Anthony Crane/Photo: Liz Lauren

The setup is that of a globalized, post-modernized update of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” as two culturally upscale couples get together for an evening that goes very, very bad. Later on, Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” seems more a latter-day take on “Othello,” as its dark-skinned protagonist sees his success-kissed dream of a life with his blonde American wife and Charvet shirts go kaboom, the victim of social prejudice and inner insecurity. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rapture, Blister, Burn

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Mary Ann Thebus,      Karen Janes Woditsch, Cassidy Slaughter-Mason and Jennifer Coombs/Photo: Liz Lauren

Mary Ann Thebus, Karen Janes Woditsch, Cassidy Slaughter-Mason and Jennifer Coombs/Photo: Liz Lauren

At one point in the first act, twenty-one-year-old Avery Willard (played with comic bravado and youthful vulnerability by Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) explains her lack of interest in “First-wave Feminism” by saying that suffrage for women is so obvious and beyond debate today that it’s not worth discussing. That notion unintentionally summarizes the basic problem with “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” a Pulitzer finalist by Gina Gionfriddo in a Chicago premiere directed by Kimberly Senior: the conflict it is supposedly concerned with, as explored in Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” fifty years ago, seems similarly antiquated. I’m not a woman, so consider that a caveat. But the idea that women have just two binary choices in life, to either forego career and any kind of personal fulfillment in order to play housewife and mother, or to pursue a successful career and be destined to a life as a lonely old maid, might have had currency back in the eighties heyday of Phyllis Schlafly, a long-forgotten retrograde who is reverently resurrected herein, but is a simplistic (and in its simplicity, demeaning) conversation today. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Great God Pan/Next Theatre Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

It’s been one of those days for Jamie (Brett Schneider), the shaky protagonist of Next Theatre’s “The Great God Pan.” First, he discovers that his live-in girlfriend Paige (Kristina Valada-Viars) is pregnant, a development this man-child is not prepared for. Then Frank (Matt Hawkins), a long-lost grade school friend, tells him that he may well have been molested decades ago by Frank’s father—an incident that Jamie cannot remember, either because it never happened or has been strategically forgotten.

Jamie’s attempt to cope with these two entangled situations is at the heart of playwright Amy Herzog’s seventy-five-minute work. Is his inability to commit to Paige due to a repressed history of sexual abuse? Is his poor recollection of childhood a means of warding off traumatic memories? Is his aura of anxiety and defensiveness a symptom of past horrors or just his tightly wound, default personality?

Unfortunately, we never quite learn the answers to these key questions, as Herzog has written only the first two acts of a three-act play. The abrupt ending, which arrives just before what should be the climax, comes off less as pregnant ambiguity than as cop-out, relieving the writer of the responsibility of taking a position and seeing the situation and characters through. 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 »

A Half-Price CTA Pass: Collaboraction’s Thirteenth Annual Sketchbook Festival

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"Most Delicious"/Photo: Anna Sodziak

“The Most Delicious”/Photo: Anna Sodziak

By Johnny Oleksinski

Last year’s Sketchbook, Collaboraction’s annual festival of new work, was remarkably impressive. The unexpectedly profound and profoundly enjoyable “Honeybuns” by Dean Evans emerged from that collection, earning itself widespread critical affection, a fall 2012 remount and an upcoming run at Theater On the Lake. Even the space’s memorable design was tremendously special. Stacks of colorful building blocks were situated in the room’s corners for seating and patrons lounged around, drinks in hand, casually enjoying the calamities of such an ambitious undertaking. This year, though, none of the full-length plays sparkled with the ravenous creativity of Evans’ one-man mime comedy, leaving much to be desired. Honoring Sketchbook’s origins in brevity, this year’s selection of seven-minute plays, titled “The Brown Line,” is the heartiest section of the four-part festival. The theme for its thirteenth year is “Destination,” the buzzword is “devised” and each of the groupings are named after a CTA train route: Green, Black, Brown and Blue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Homecoming 1972/Chicago Dramatists

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Photo: Jeff Pines

Photo: Jeff Pines

The story of the solider returning home from war is as ancient as Odysseus and as contemporary as the evening news. The specifics may vary, but the central conceit of the Greek legend is the same as William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives”: a man leaves home one person and returns home another, having undergone, for better or for worse, a transformation. And for millennia, the change was newfound honor and valor reflecting chivalrous or not-so-chivalrous bravery. Being the hometown personification of war, the solider was a hero. Read the rest of this entry »