Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: 1984/Steppenwolf for Young Adults

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Cast of "1984"/Photo: Joe Mazza,      Brave Lux Inc.

Cast of “1984”/Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux Inc.

Bringing classic literature to life is always a challenge. Those challenges are especially clear in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of “1984.”

Directed by Hallie Gordon, this adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel is much warmer and far less sterile than expected. Andrew White originally adapted the book for a Lookingglass production in 2004 (for which he won a Jeff Award for Best Adaptation). However, this production has been heavily revised from that script to focus on some of the book’s nuances—like Winston’s (Adam Poss) inner mind battle, often trying to remember his past, his family and a time before Big Brother. Read the rest of this entry »

Player of the Moment: David Schmitz, New Managing Director of Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux

Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux


By Brian Hieggelke

Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.

What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Death Tax/Lookingglass

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J. Nicole Brooks, Deanna Dunagan/Photo: Liz Lauren

J. Nicole Brooks, Deanna Dunagan/Photo: Liz Lauren

Paragraph One. Playwright Lucas Hnath’s having a Chicago moment, with his “Isaac’s Eye” in simultaneous production at Writers Theatre this fall. “Death Tax” (Can you imagine the groan emanating from the marketing department when that title was announced?) is a tight, seventy-five minute exploration of healthcare, morality and family ties getting its Lookingglass treatment behind the capable direction of Heidi Stillman. In typical Lookingglass style, the set exists mostly in the imagination: a simple black square painted on the floor with the audience seated in a square as well, on three of four sides. But the sense of being “boxed in” is palpable throughout this play that wears its structure on its sleeve, with lead J. Nicole Brooks announcing each of five scenes in place of conventional transition. Paragraph Two. The only character in every scene, Brooks delivers a fiery, riveting performance as the nurse Tina tending to a dying old woman Maxine (Deanna Dunagan striking a perfect note of manipulative vulnerability) who’s convinced that her only child, her grown daughter, is secretly paying Tina to hasten her demise, for tax purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Play Time: How to Binge on Chicago Theatre Week

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DebClapp-colorprint-headshotBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

A relatively new phenomenon, Chicago Theatre Week is the opportunity for both the diehard fan and the average Joe to explore and enjoy the variety of theater that Chicago has on offer on the cheap with 100 productions all offering reduced ticket prices for the duration of the event. In its brief tenure, Chicago Theatre Week has joined the ranks of Restaurant Week on the list of “amazing activities with which to lust away an entire week in Chicago,” and rightly so—but what is it about Chicago theater that makes it special? And what better time than Chicago Theatre Week to find out?

We asked Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, which organizes Theatre Week, to share her insights with us.

What got you interested in theater in Chicago?
I moved to Chicago to work at the Goodman and I really wasn’t aware at the time that there was such an amazing theater scene happening here… At Goodman I was privileged to be able to work with such companies as Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna and Congo Square. Those companies and their high levels of artistic quality, craftsmanship and professionalism gave me my first glimpse of what was going on in Chicago and got me interested in what was happening in the rest of the city. 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: The Little Prince/Lookingglass Theatre

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Photo by Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

There are few stories as universally beloved as Antoine de St. Exupéry’s 1943 tale of a pilot who crash-lands in the Sahara Desert and meets a mysterious little prince from another planet. The love of this book comes with benefits and drawbacks when producing it on stage—your audience brings the excitement of seeing one of their favorite stories brought to life but along with that comes the fear that your vision will be different than theirs. At least (full disclosure) that’s the baggage I brought with me on opening night. And though I have a few minor quibbles with the script by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar and a few even minor-er quibbles with some of director David Catlin’s choices (why TWO characters with French accents?), I was more than pleasantly surprised by this delightful adaptation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The North China Lover/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Rae Gray and Tim Chiou/Photo by Liz Lauren

Rae Gray and Tim Chiou/Photo: Liz Lauren

Everything about this world-premiere adaptation of French author Marguerite Duras’ novel of the same name is surreal. Scenes fade in and out with dreamlike transitions and overlap. Daniel Ostling’s deceptively simple, blankly carpeted set pops tables and chairs up through the floor, silently rotates entire scenes around and features a large door piece that seems to magically slide itself across the stage when needed. The frequently dim but often colorful lighting design (also by Ostling) creates a smoky effect over the stage, as if you can just barely make out what’s happening. In several scenes, Betti Xiang (backlit in a corner of the stage) plays haunting melodies on an erhu (sometimes called the “Chinese violin”).

But the story itself—ostensibly autobiographical, though we’re told from the beginning by M (an understated and rather mysterious Deanna Dunagan) that our narrator may not be completely reliable—is the most surreal of all. The story of a fifteen-year-old girl (a strident Rae Gray, referred to only as “The Child”) and her affair with a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese playboy (the effortlessly urbane Tim Chiou, referred to only as “The Lover”) in early 1930s Indochina, this adaptation by Heidi Stillman (who also directs) does little to sugarcoat the nature of the couple’s relationship. She at first claims to be seventeen, then sixteen-and-a-half, but The Lover believes neither. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Big Lake Big City/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

“A Steady Rain”-playwright Keith Huff’s newest caper, “Big Lake Big City” at Lookingglass Theatre Company, is a total bust. A wannabe satire of already what’s probably the most satirized profession, the police, this irritating play drags a group of Chicago’s topmost acting talent through the convoluted thicket of crude and juvenile comedy without remorse. Granted, sophomoric humor is usually a likable enough genre, but the cream of the crop always has some semblance of relevancy and bite. However, Huff’s jokes and plots are mothball stagnant and come across no less than two decades behind the times. “Book of Mormon,” this is not.
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Review: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

Glancing above and around the stage at Lookingglass Theatre Company on Saturday night, one could spy a handful of animal topiaries of varying size and species—giraffe, rhino, bird—a kind of grass menagerie with a dual purpose. For one, it’s the livelihood and artistic respite of an Iraqi gardener-turned-translator, Musa (Anish Jethmalani, persistently disturbed). In a bold move of topicality on the part of the playwright, Musa planted and shaped this garden on the grounds of the now-dead Uday Hussein’s (Kareem Bandealy) palace.

In Rajiv Joseph’s 2003-set “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” the bright promise of a post-Saddam Iraq has not been achieved, and the violence of war and insurgency are escalating. Soldiers are afraid, citizens are terrified and, in times of fear, escape is paramount. This lifelike collection of sculptures (set by Daniel Ostling) is Musa’s escape until a horrible, scarring tragedy occurs in its midst. The dreamy garden is also a heavenly afterlife for a slain Bengal tiger. In the play’s first scene, Tiger (Troy West) is provoked by a thoughtless Marine (Walter Owen Briggs); he bites the the guy’s hand off, as is his nature, and is shot to death in retaliation. After roaming the streets, Tiger’s ghost stumbles upon the garden, convinced that it’s heaven and that God is just around the corner.

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Review: Metamorphoses/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Returning to the Lookingglass stage fourteen years after its debut (and a decade after it won director Mary Zimmerman a Best Director Tony on Broadway) “Metamorphoses” feels as contemporary as ever. Interpreting a series of loosely connected tales/myths taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses, ” Zimmerman’s work intertwines comedy and tragedy along with the whimsical and contemplative to create a moving and engaging piece of theater that connects modern-day theatergoers to stories that are over two-thousand-years old. The audience sits around a rectangular pool of water surrounded by a thin walkway. The ensemble—and this is truly an ensemble piece—winds around (and frequently through) the water, occasionally splashing the first few rows of the audience (who are provided with towels) in moments of extreme playfulness or torment. Read the rest of this entry »