Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Have a Little “Too Much”: Neo-Futurists Ring in the New Year

Holiday, New Year's Eve, Profiles, Theater, World Premiere No Comments »
"Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind"/Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux

“Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”/Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux

By Mary Kroeck

“Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” was first performed by the Neo-Futurists in Chicago on December 2, 1988. The premise of the show was (and still is) to perform thirty plays in sixty minutes. All plays are written and performed by the ensemble with occasional audience participation. Now in its twenty-seventh year, “Too Much Light” is the longest-running show in the city.

For the past several years, singles and those looking for an alternative to traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations have gathered at the Neo-Futurarium. The cast promptly begins their show at 11pm. Actors and audiences alike end one year and begin another with live theater.

Kirsten Riiber has been an ensemble member with the Neo-Futurists since 2012 and has performed in the New Year’s Eve show for the past two years. “It’s a great alternative to a lot of the other events that happen that night,” Riiber says. “It seems to focus less on getting totally blasted and more on looking forward to a new year and remembering how the last year was.” Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Fable: The Evolution of Community Performance at the Pivot Arts Festival

Festivals, Musicals, Profiles, Theater No Comments »
Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

By Aaron Hunt

In May 2012, Julieanne Ehre and Katy Collins co-produced what they coined a “Fable Festival” in Edgewater. Cafes, empty storefronts and restaurants hosted such delectable, multi-discipline concoctions as puppet folklore, American mythology and ten different playwrights’ interpretations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But what came next is anything but a fiction, although animals, mythical creatures, natural forces endowed with human qualities, and life lessons are still a part of the magnificent tale that has become Pivot Arts.

“This is a pivot of partnerships. We’re really about being a pivot-point for the arts, and bringing communities together,” Ehre, now Pivot’s director, told me over coffee in an Uptown cafe. Ehre had served as artistic director of Greasy Joan & Co. for five years, and was the NEA/TCG New Generations “Future Leaders” Fellow at the Goodman Theatre, where she served as producer on Latino Festival, New Stages Series, and conceived of and produced the Goodman’s “Artists Talk” series. Collins, (currently a Pivot artistic associate), had been the artistic director of Vintage Theater Collective, and was no stranger to production herself. Between the two, the wealth of talent on Chicago’s North Side, and the buy-in of local businesses, “Fable Festival” not only entertained and facilitated conversations both within the Edgewater/Uptown community but also “over the fence” as well, when residences of adjacent neighborhoods wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. But when the festival was over, what next? In June of 2012, the conversation began. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: El Stories: Talking to Strangers/Waltzing Mechanics

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »



Alongside the Neo-Futurists, Waltzing Mechanics are purveyors of micro theater. Their latest edition in the “El Stories” series ought to be called “Not Talking to Strangers,” following the conventional wisdom of public transit, which dictates that you keep to yourself and make believe you are anywhere else.

If there’s a moral somewhere in “El Stories” it’s that shared spaces are vital for forcing valuable and otherwise unforeseeable communal experiences onto us. It is how we learn about our city and forge bonds with the people in it. The moments we most want to avoid while they’re happening (urine, loquacious robbery, harmonica solos, etc.) are the same ones we wear later as badges of pride.

The conceit of the Mechanics’ direct-to-stage storytelling means that not all stories read like stories. Several are, as one surrogate narrator puts it, hardly even anecdotes. It is an evening of identity by composite and so the fact that various tales lack compelling structure, meaningful interactions or even a defining dramatic moment is wholly natural. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pseudo-Chum/The Neo-Futurists

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(l to r) Aaron Lawson,      Carolyn Benjamin, Sean Benjamin/Photo: Daniel Neumann

Aaron Lawson, Carolyn Benjamin, Sean Benjamin/Photo: Daniel Neumann


Disclosure, before the sharks circle: I like to be amused. I’m generally not amused by art about art, whether it concerns its own making or whether it ruminates on or examines other art. Sean and Carolyn Benjamin’s “Pseudo-Chum” is highly amusing, and/but it’s also about itself and about other art. Once upon my own youth I had a writing teacher who instructed that the one thing you should not write about is writing. Thanks to this Neo-Futurists production, I’m violating this in the extreme: writing about writing about writing. Is there a solution to this dilemma? As a meta fact there is. I just ain’t gonna mention a single of the play’s cultural references. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Alice/Upended Productions

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(l to r) Josh Zagoren, Dina Walters/Photo: Johnny Knight

Josh Zagoren, Dina Walters/Photo: Johnny Knight


“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” provide wonderful delight to readers across generations and endless inspiration to artists across disciplines. Right now (this is speculation) several males, females and individuals refusing to identify with a binary gender designation are renaming themselves “Alice Liddell” all over F@cebøøk in surreal protest of that site’s “real name” policy.

You too shall be rechristened Alice when you opt to go down the rabbit hole (and up and down several flights of stairs) at Upended’s revival of Noelle Krimm’s multi-venue, hop-around-the-‘hood “Alice.” Upon arriving at the Neo-Futurarium the other “guests” and I were name-tagged, and shortly thereafter chastised (albeit gently) by our hostess. Hosts vary; for our 1pm tour a very demure Mrs. Rabbit (Dina Marie Walters), frequently consulting a Betty Crocker book to validate her stances on proper party etiquette, guided us through a variety of nearby Andersonville establishments (bar, resale shop, that Swedish museum…) to provide us all a glimpse, through Alice’s eyes, into each of the dozen chapters of Lewis Carroll’s allegedly nonsensical, cogently illogical masterpiece. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind/The Neo-Futurists

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Friday night with thirty minutes to go before the doors to the Neo-Futurarium open, a line already snakes down Ashland and around the corner onto Foster. With patrons ranging from traditional theater-types to bros to hipsters and various types in between, it’s readily apparent that “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” (TML from here on)—the longest-running production in Chicago, which recently celebrated a twenty-fifth anniversary—is still drawing in crowds and then shaking them up in the Neo-Futurists’ signature style.

Many know what to expect from the sometimes hectic, rapid-fire “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” structure of TML because they’ve seen it before and many more have only heard secondhand what they’re in for when attending this unique production. After entering the theater, audience members are promptly given a “menu” which lists the name of thirty individual plays, each with a unique number before it. In order to move the show along, audience members are asked to yell the number of the show they’d like to see next in the moments immediately following the end of the previous play. This results in an excited barrage of numbers being shouted from all corners of the audience in between each vignette and serves to not only jolt the audience but to amp up the action on stage as well.

With titles like “The One Time I Didn’t Hate Kids.” and “I don’t need any help.” these brief plays range from sight gags to physical comedy to one-liners to occasional forays into the deeper aspects of the human condition. Each delivers in its own way—though the quirky comedic bits tend to work best, especially when coupled with a more oblique reference to emotional implications. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 5 Comments »

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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Big Bouffonery: Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival Balances Art and Entertainment

-News etc., Performance, Profiles, World Premiere No Comments »

Muualla1_Chiara_ContrinoBy Robert Eric Shoemaker

The release reads, “First of its kind in the U.S., the 2014 Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival brings shows from around the world together January 6th through 12th.”

If, like me, you are not the type to enjoy clowns and dancing elephants, make sure you read further; this is not your average big-top, “shiny shoe” circus. This is the circus peculiar to much of Europe, Quebec and a slow trickle in the United States, a circus unlike that of Vegas’ “Cirque du Soleil”—it is innovative, small, plucky and growing steam.

Curated by Matt Roben and Shayna Swanson, two mightily seasoned performers in their own circus-y rights, the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival is the nation’s first contemporary circus festival. The focus of contemporary circus is to create artistically insightful and emotionally affecting work, such as one-man contortionist acts or late-night cabaret mime. This circus has existed in Chicago for years, but never has such a streamlined attempt been made to make the City of Big Shoulders THE city for circus; as Roben puts it, the festival is an attempt to make Chicago “the epicenter of circus for the United States.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Burning Bluebeard/The Ruffians

Christmas, Holiday, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Dean Evans,      Jay Torrence,      Leah Urzendowski Courser,      Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo by Evan Hanover.

Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover


“You know how you go to most Christmas shows and you’re sitting there and they don’t catch you on fire?” one of the characters in “Burning Bluebeard” rhetorically asks the audience early on, before going on to explain how they ended up doing exactly the opposite during their show. Their show is “Mr. Bluebeard,” a spectacle-filled holiday pantomime performed at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in December of 1903. And the specific performance that’s being discussed is the infamously tragic matinee when the theater caught fire, killing more than 600 people, many of them children.

Originally produced two years ago by the Neo-Futurists at The Neo-Futurarium, this remounting at Theater Wit features the complete original cast, and is once again helmed by director Halena Kays. “Listen,” says Kays, “we wouldn’t come back and do this if this piece and this cast weren’t very special.” And it is indeed special. Written by Jay Torrence (who also performs in it), this semi-historical account features dance, acrobatics, clowning and a surprising amount of comedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Playing With Fire: The Ruffians’ “Burning Bluebeard” Rises Again

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(l to r) Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo by Evan Hanover.

Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover

By Mark Eleveld

Chicago is notorious for big fires, big shows and lamentation at such horrific circumstances, all of which can be found in Jay Torrence’s “Burning Bluebeard,” which retells the story of the 1903 Chicago Iroquois Theater fire. “Bluebeard” is a new, classic Chicago story now in its second run, with all of the original players, at Theater Wit. “I romanticize artists who die making their art,” says Torrence, a writer and actor in the show. “The terrible tragedy of it—and that the death of the artist is a spectacle itself, happy endings that go wrong.”

On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theater (now the site of the Oriental Theatre) in the Loop was playing the clown show “Mr. Bluebeard” (with famous Chicago actor Eddie Foy) as part of a holiday matinee. “There were nine songs before the first scene even began in the original,” says Torrence. It was a Christmas Pantomime, a hybrid of dance, song and storytelling, with clowns, mimes and an aerialist; it was also a fairy tale. And the audience packed in for the performance, with some 2,000 people filling the seats and standing area in the back. Of the 2,000, many were children. “A friend showed me a giant photograph of the Iroquois Theater. I was fascinated,” says Torrence. The afternoon theater fire killed nearly 600, many children. “I began reading about it after I saw the photo,” adds Torrence. “I read about Nellie Reed, the aerialist, who was the only performer who did not survive. She was trapped atop. Most of the information comes from court documents, from audience survivors. Nothing from the clowns.” Read the rest of this entry »