Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Players 2015: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.

Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)

Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »

Building a Mystery: Unrehearsed “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” Keeps Even its Performers Guessing

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Image courtesy of Aurora Nova Productions.

Image courtesy of Aurora Nova Productions

By Robert Eric Shoemaker

“White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” is a solo piece with no rehearsals, no set and almost no readily available information about it. For its short run of performances at the MCA, co-sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival, there are four possible, and very notable, actors lined up for the single role: Usman Ally, Fawzia Mirza, Yasen Peyankov or Michael Shannon. Audience members will have to go to all of the performances to guarantee seeing the one they prefer, because there is no advance notice about who will be going onstage when. In fact, the actors themselves hardly know what is going on.

As Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov bluntly puts it, “I only know what is available through the official website. I will receive written instructions from Mr. Soleimanpour [Nassim Soleimanpour, the play’s creator] a few days before the reading and I will be handed the script when I arrive at MCA the day of my reading. I have no other knowledge of the script and I am not supposed to and I will not contact any of the other performers before my performance.”

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Forbidden Territory: Ganesh takes on the Nazis with Back to Back Theatre Company

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By Eric Shoemaker

Photo: Jeff Busby

Photo: Jeff Busby

The Back to Back Theatre ensemble is no ordinary group of performers. The company has existed since 1987 to bring disabled actors to the stage in order to build, together, a performance that speaks to not only their experiences as a minority but a holistic view of what it really means to be human. Back to Back is playing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in their production, “Ganesh versus the Third Reich,” opening May 16, in which Ganesh attempts to reclaim the swastika from the Nazi party.

I spoke with Bruce Gladwin, the artistic director of Back to Back Theatre since 1991, to get a sense of the work that he does with this extraordinary group. Read the rest of this entry »

Untitled Article: Young Jean Lee’s Latest Show Plays the MCA

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Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee/Photo: Blaine Davis

By Zach Freeman

As a twenty-six-year old graduate student studying Shakespeare at Berkeley and working on her dissertation, a frustrated Young Jean Lee, fed up with academia, went to a therapist for help. The therapist started by posing a question to Lee that she was told to answer off the top of her head: “What do you want to do with your life?” Lee was so shocked by her own response (“I want to be a playwright.”) that she asked the therapist for a do-over. Recounting the moment later, Lee jokes that, “If you’re studying Shakespeare and you say that you want to be a playwright and you have no experience playwriting, it’s like being a veterinarian and saying that you want to be a dog.”

Still, over the last decade, the Korean-American Lee has managed to make more than a name for herself in the world of experimental theater, she’s won Obies and created an oeuvre of provocative, high-profile pieces that defy easy categorization. Among others, there’s “The Shipment,” a “Black identity politics show” (her words), “Church,” a surprisingly earnest exploration of Christianity and “We’re Gonna Die,” a show about that one thing that every single living human has in common (hint: see title). Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Compagnie Marie Chouinard/MCA Stage

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Compagnie Marie ChouinardRECOMMENDED

The MCA Stage invites back Montreal-based Compagnie Marie Chouinard to perform two pieces: Chouinard’s 1993 version of “Rite of Spring” and “Henri Michaux: Mouvements, ” a piece structured around a book of drawings and poetry by the French artist. Chouinard’s “Rite” transforms dancers into beasts of the air and land, bursting from their nests, spreading their talons, locking their horns and writhing in heat. Stravinsky’s fever dream is in good hands here: Chouinard is at home in id and eros, not shying away from the elemental frenzy and lust that sent audiences into a riot 100 years ago. 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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Perception and Doubt: Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People Explore the Big Questions

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Photo courtesy Chris Cameron

Photo: Chris Cameron

By Sharon Hoyer

Miguel Gutierrez is a Brooklyn-based dance theater artist whose new work, “And lose the name of action, ” comes to the MCA next weekend. Gutierrez spoke with me about the creation of the piece, the unreliability of perception and working with his changing group of collaborators, the Powerful People.

You’re working with some very big subjects—life, death, families, doubt. How did this piece come about?

It grew out of my previous piece, “Last Meadow.” Toward the beginning of making “Last Meadow” my father started having neurological problems. Around that time I was introduced to a book by Mark Johnson called “The Meaning of the Body.” In it, he’s attempting to eradicate once and for all mind-body dualism by arguing that perception is an embodied process; that we’re contextualized in the world through our bodies. When I read this I thought this makes a lot of sense and secondly, this is pretty obvious. It’s beautifully written, but I didn’t understand how it’s a big surprise. Those two events got this piece rolling, as opposed to what usually happens, when I finish a piece and say, “okay, next idea.” By the time I finished “Last Meadow” my father’s problems weren’t over and I felt I was addressing something that merited further investigation. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Martin Creed’s Work No. 1020 (Ballet)/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Multimedia artist and provocateur Martin Creed presents a mash-up of ballet fundamentals, video and ironic rock ‘n’ roll musical in this performance at the Edlis Neeson Theater—part of Creed’s yearlong residency at the MCA. Five dancers—choreographed in partnership with Lorena Randi—mark through various iterations of the five basic ballet positions, which are linked to corresponding notes on the major scale. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: American Utopias/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Occasionally I am reminded that closely (or loosely) held beliefs are essential to criticizing a work of art. Sure, that “Ah-ha!” lightbulb might come across as generic and obvious to many, but, as the monologist Mike Daisey says, we so often ignore “what’s right in front of us.” If I falsely adorn the guise of tabula rasa—a boldfaced lie—how can my extant opinions be shaken up by a play, film, sculpture, dance, a piece of music or a book? The same goes for any arts patron.

And isn’t that the whole point? To question? To doubt? To learn? Our rigid, score-based educational system and consumerist mindset have imparted an appetite for plain old structure—assigning quantitative points (otherwise known as stars) to qualitative intangibles. No Audience Member Left Behind. But all too frequently a person’s bias cannot be suppressed. And—as I wondered to myself amidst a sizable outdoor gathering under the neon “MOTHERS” sign at the Museum of Contemporary Art listening to Daisey—maybe it never should have been in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

State of the Art: Common Issues, Uncommon Dances Spark Audience at Chicago Now Dance Panel

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Zachary Wittenburg/Photo: Nathan West

The Chicago Now panel discussion and snapshot performances, hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art on August 24, rounded out the contemplative artist side of the Chicago Dancing Festival that for five years has stirred the hearts of performance lovers throughout the city with its free events. Festival co-founder Jay Franke says Chicago has become a locus for dance, although always “with room for more.”

The Chicago Now panel was designed to “take the temperature of dance” in the Chicago scene today by featuring the work and words of several leading dance artists, chosen in part by curator Peter Taub for their innovation and visibility: Ron de Jesús, founder of Ron de Jesús Dance and pupil of Twlya Tharp, and Carrie Hanson, founder of The Seldoms—who have put on site-specific work in an empty swimming pool, a trucking warehouse and backstage at the Harris Theater—headed up the panel. These two were particularly spotlit due to the snapshot performances of their company’s work—while they sweated, other panelists Lane Alexander of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and Julie Nakagawa of DanceWorks Chicago sat back and put in their two cents. Read the rest of this entry »