Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Burning Bluebeard/The Ruffians & The Hypocrites

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Jay Torrence, Anthony Courser, Pam Chermansky, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski and Ryan Walters/Photo: Evan Hanover


For all but the cult-like fans of “Mr. Show,” the appearance of “W/ Bob & David” on Netflix is likely little more than a curiosity. For the inquisitive, I recommend a quick scan of the infamous “Mr. Show” sketch “The Story of Everest,” wherein a young climber returns from his daring exploit only to ritualistically make himself a fool in a far more domestic setting. From there, “The Story of Everest” evolves into “The Story of ‘The Story of Everest’,” proving how the “reality” behind the fiction can often be far more entertaining than the fiction itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide/The Hypocrites & The Yard

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Hunter Dunn, Justin Burns, Olivia Shine (rabbit) and Brian Baren (turtle)/Photo: Evan Hanover


For the last three years I’ve been the organizer of a short-film festival dedicated exclusively to the work of high-school students from around the world. The films submitted are often a lot like you might imagine: low-budget auteur idolatry, a general air of basement and backyard spontaneity, a loose definition of plot and even looser definition of resolution. Yet there is one element that comes up again and again in the films I have watched that does surprise me: death. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: American Idiot/The Hypocrites

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(center) Malic White with cast and band/Photo: Evan Hanover.

Malic White (center) with cast and band/Photo: Evan Hanover


Green Day’s “American Idiot” sounds like someone took a real work of art, hammered and sanded it into an orb of commodified meaninglessness, cooked it up under the flame of unquenchable corporate greed and shot it straight into the arm of a generation of angst-ridden teenagers starving for some—or any—kind of validity for their hormonal rage. It is a pop-culture object for which I not only feel zero affection but actual repulsion. But I would be more full of shit than a mid-2000s middle school Live Journal if I said I did not enjoy every second of this not-quite Midwest premiere of the musical that bears its name, which is currently being staged by the incomparable ensemble known as The Hypocrites. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All Our Tragic/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Geoff Button and Walter Briggs/Photo: Evan Hanover

Geoff Button and Walter Briggs/Photo: Evan Hanover


One might think that Sean Graney’s title for his play/adaptation/mashup/opus “All Our Tragic” is a bit of playful hyperbole. But nope. It’s all in there. From Prometheus on the rock to Herakles butchering his children to Oedipus and Troy and Orestes’ revenge on Klytaimnestra, “All Our Tragic” is an entire survey course in Greek tragedy crammed into a single twelve-hour play.

Oh yes, about that. It’s twelve hours long. And it is definitely worth it.

Adapted by Graney from all thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies, “All Our Tragic” is as liberal with its source material as it is with its blood effects. It isn’t necessarily meant to be an “accurate” adaptation of the classic tragedies—which were themselves a remixing of mythology, history and commentary. It treats the plays like raw ores that Graney melts down to then forge into something bigger, grander and truly epic.

And as much as the play is a never-ending parade of death and misery and woe, it is also shot through with irreverence. The play isn’t only alive, it is also keenly self-aware. And that’s good, because Greek tragedy is weird, man. Dragons and spear brides and witches, and… . But by allowing the play to laugh at itself, Graney pre-empts our own ironic detachment. We are allowed to laugh with the play, rather than at it. And then we cry with it too. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Three Sisters/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Lindsey Gavel, Joel Ewing, Mary Williamson and Hilary Williams/Photo: Evan Hanover

Lindsey Gavel, Joel Ewing, Mary Williamson and Hilary Williams/Photo: Evan Hanover


In college, the old adage goes: sleep, work, social life; choose two. For Anton Chekhov, a similarly triangular logic exists: happiness, knowledge, safety; choose two and constantly long for the third. Or better yet: choose all three, believe they are within your grasp, discover how wrong you were, become disillusioned, find an adequately expressive metaphor, sink into existential grief.

The Hypocrites adaptation of “Three Sisters” aims to bring Chekhov to a generation of “Downton Abbey” viewers. It is an honorable task that the company is more than equipped to handle. There are moments of audience-baiting—a casual “whatever” or two gets dropped—though things mostly stick to the script. There is a wedding, a fire, a couple of affairs and a duel, all of which take place offstage. Like a decadent feast, the real story takes place in the kitchen, not the dining room.

Naturally, this is Chekhov’s prerogative. Given the atmospheric nature of “Three Sisters,” the challenge is in staging. Director Geoff Button is undeniably talented in this regard. While the period and tableau may require rigidity, his actors remain fluid and graceful. They work harmoniously toward the play’s delightful anticlimax and dour conception of life constantly on the cusp of truly beginning. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Endgame/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough/Photo: Evan Hanover

Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw and Donna McGough/Photo: Evan Hanover


The plays of Samuel Beckett are self-contained worlds. They are shorn of history, context and anything resembling realism: life boiled down to its bone-broth essence. So when director Halena Kays gives us a production of Beckett’s “Endgame” that is itself contained in its own little traveling vaudeville stage wagon, it makes a refreshing amount of sense. And it helps that the set by Elizabeth Bracken along with the lights by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, costumes by Jessica Kuehnau Wardell and makeup by Nathan Rohrer all look fantastic. And seedy. And a little bit scary.

Kays however doesn’t fully embrace the starkness of Beckett’s vision, and it’s to the play’s benefit. Not only do all the characters speak in the playwright’s natural Irish lilt, but they wear the old-timey vaudeville heart of his style on their sleeve. They mug, they perform, they savor their moment in the (literal) spotlight. They seem of a specific place and specific time, and these glimmers of what once was make their irrevocable collapse all the more melancholic. Signs of children, an extinct species here, abound. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Review: The Pirates of Penzance/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Kate Carson-Groner, Erik Schroeder, Matt Kahler  and Dana Omar/Photo: Evan Hanover

Kate Carson-Groner, Erik Schroeder, Matt Kahler and Dana Omar/Photo: Evan Hanover


I’m not the first to say this, and I certainly won’t be the last: Go to The Hypocrites’ revival of their 2010 staging of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Don’t be put off by their unprepossessing new location. Yes, the unfinished theater still looks like what it was: a furniture-store showroom. Yes, to a first-time customer, casualness and laissez-faire seem to be the order of the day. But don’t be fooled by the atmosphere of whimsy, friendliness, anarchy and chaos that envelops you at the theater entrance. It’s all been carefully calculated to sweep your mind clean of stale preconceptions about Gilbert and Sullivan and Victorian theater.

This production of “Pirates” is as tightly and artistically controlled, as professionally faultless an affair as you will see anywhere. After much consideration, I say this categorically: artistic director Sean Graney, the man who fomented this seeming rout and disorder, is an amazing artist. There is method—and cunning, brilliant, astonishing insight—in his madness. Graney wants to convert you to his utter delight and belief in Gilbert and Sullivan as important thinkers and determined social reformers. He succeeds. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover


The problem that any company encounters when producing “The Mikado” is—to put it bluntly—it’s kinda sorta maybe pretty undeniably racist. And as it is a show set in Japan that was written by a pair of middle-aged British guys during the height of the Victorian Empire—neither of whom had ever been to Japan—its racial insensitivity is unsurprising. Despite all of this, “The Mikado” has not only managed to survive, but has downright thrived in the century-plus since its inception. It has done so because from the music to the lyrics to the book, the show is a fantastic piece of musical comedy. And yet, in production after production, there are still those moments where audiences squirm in their seats and look askance. Both theater artists and audiences have trouble reconciling their desire for Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterful artistry with the fact that they then have to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan’s stupid, ill-informed racism. It’s a pickle for sure.

Thankfully Sean Graney has rolled into town with his patented pickle-solving machine. Having made a career as a kind of theatrical necromancer, taking dead classical texts and reviving them to make them dance anew, Graney is perfectly suited to the task. And in the end, the answer was deceptively simple: Graney got rid of the racism by just kind of ignoring it. He took the show, which is currently running as a part of The Hypocrites “Gilbert and Sullivan Rep,” and he set it in a circus. There are polka-dot dresses, red-banded stockings and bright-green suspenders by the dozen with nary a kimono in sight. Additionally, he took Gilbert and Sullivan’s ornate, occasionally Orientalist score and reconstructed it for a motley assortment of guitars, accordions and banjos. Other than occasional mentions that the story is set in Japan, one would never know that the characters were meant to be a British person’s idea of a Japanese person. Instead they seem like what they really are: a British person’s idea of another, much sillier British person. I have no idea if this was Graney’s idea when he set out to adapt the piece, but it works. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: H.M.S. Pinafore/The Hypocrites

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(top) Erik Schroeder with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

Erik Schroeder (top) with Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover


First, he turned “Pirates of Penzance” into a beach-bum sing-along. Next, he took “The Mikado” and made a three-ring circus with all three rings overlapping, like a Venn diagram. And now, Sean Graney has arrived at the inevitable: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” This time around he has picked a theme that perhaps best encapsulates his madmen-running-the-madhouse promenade style, turning the whole thing into a slumber party. What does a slumber party have to do with a show about the Victorian-era British Navy, you might ask?

From what I can tell, slumber parties have as much to do with the British Navy as the Shogun’s Japan has to do with PT Barnum and high seas profiteering has to do with Jimmy Buffett. That is to say, not a whole heck of a lot. And yet these three shows, currently running in rep at The Den Theatre’s new ground-floor space, all feel exactly right. They aren’t strict adaptations, and “H.M.S. Pinafore” is especially generous with the chopping and the splicing and the devil-may-care-but-we-sure-as-heck-don’t textural additions. They are re-imaginings. Graney has actually gone and broken these operettas down into their component parts and then built them back up again according to his own crazed design. “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a slumber party because Sean Graney’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” feels like a slumber party. So nyeh! Read the rest of this entry »

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