Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Mary Page Marlowe/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere 1 Comment »
Caroline Heffernan and Amanda Drinkall/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Heffernan and Amanda Drinkall/Photo: Michael Brosilow


The quality that has solidified Tracy Letts’ reputation as a contemporary playwriting master is his unwillingness to be put into a literary box. From his debut play “Killer Joe” and the Tony Award-winning “August: Osage County” to his intimate slice of Uptown life in “Superior Donuts,” Letts’ body of work defies categorization. His newest play, “Mary Page Marlowe” in its world premiere at Steppenwolf, is no different.

Letts’ concept in “Mary Page Marlowe” is itself innovative. One-act plays rarely have such large ensemble casts, let alone multiple actors playing the title character. Here we have six. Read the rest of this entry »

Players 2016: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

Players 50 2 Comments »


“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: The Hammer Trinity/The House Theatre of Chicago

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere 1 Comment »
L to R: Kara Davidson as Rienne,      Kevin Stangler as Casper Kent,      JJ Phillips as Wilke,      William Dick as Hap The Golden

Kara Davidson, Kevin Stangler, JJ Phillips, William Dick/Photo: Michael Brosilow

The Iron Stag King


If “Game of Thrones” took the Arthurian high fantasy genre and dragged it off its clean white pedestal down into the muck, then The House Theatre’s “Hammer Trinity” is the thing that seizes it by the scruff of its neck and hauls it across the seas to American soil. The nine-hour, seven-act trilogy of plays is just as indebted to the legacy of America’s founding mythos—common folk bellowing for freedom, cracked bells, western outlaws, steel-hearted robber barons and endlessly rejustified genocides—as it is to the legends of Arthur and Merlin. It is also nothing short of stunning.

Written by Chris Mathews and Nathan Allen (who also directs), “The Hammer Trinity” tells of a land called New Plymouth—a place ruled by narratives. Instead of wizards there are storytellers, ancient beings who conjure tales about who is good and bad, right and wrong, who should rule and who should be ruled.

“The Iron Stag King,” the first play in the trilogy, opens with the tale of young Casper Kent (Kevin Stangler), a simple orphan who is (of course!) anything but. He learns from storyteller Hap The Golden (William Dick) that he must quest to find the magical Hammer of his ancestors and unite a splintered land. Hot on his heels are the forces of the Crownless, led by the vicious fop Henley Hawthorne (Joey Steakley) hellbent on snuffing out Casper’s royal line for good. 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Crownless King/The House Theatre of Chicago

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow


As they’ve opted to open with a brief narrative recap (“Once upon a time, all the folk were free…”), it’s clear that writers Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews are well aware that even the most focused of memories may need a little refreshing before audiences are ready to dive into this sequel to last year’s “The Iron Stag King: Part One.” And they’re right about that; there’s a good deal of backstory that potential viewers should be acquainted with (whether they saw the first installment of this as-yet-unnamed trilogy or not). Because as with part one, “The Crownless King” throws it all out there: Marriage. War. Free will. The disembodied voice of Tracy Letts. It’s a lot to take in.

So, here we go.

After the triumphant hammer-raising at the end of “Iron Stag King,” the newly crowned Casper Kent (Brandon Ruiter) is tasked with leading the kingdom of New Plymouth toward… something. It’s never quite clear what. It seems Casper mainly just wants to preside over a peaceful, prosperous land. But shifty storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain)—who’s coordinated all the steps up to this point—has another, more violent, plan in mind. And whatever anyone’s plan is, the fierce pirate Davy Boone (Blake Montgomery doing a fairly solid impression of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher from “Gangs of New York”) objects and declares war on New Plymouth in the name of freedom. Read the rest of this entry »

Full Nelson: The Singular Intensity of Michael Shannon

-News etc., Profiles 2 Comments »
Photo: Dave Rentauskas

Photo: Dave Rentauskas

By Brian Hieggelke

The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Pre-Production Notes
When he gets the email from A Red Orchid Theatre’s publicist that Michael Shannon is available to do a cover story, the reporter has to move fast. Shannon’s back in Chicago for the theater company’s twentieth-anniversary production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” and it starts July 4. The reporter has limited familiarity with his work, having somehow managed to never see him live in spite of his long career on local stages, knowing him only from his Academy Award-nominated role as the troubled John Givings, Jr. in “Revolutionary Road” and his recurring role in “Boardwalk Empire” as the creepy G-Man Nelson Van Alden. It’s gonna require a crash course.

To get his head around the subject, the reporter makes a list of adjectives that come to mind when he thinks of Michael Shannon: creepy, brooding, tall, gangly, face of a fallen Puritan, mysterious, Christopher Walken, disturbed, unhinged, dangerous. The reporter cautiously commits to the story.

And there’s this: “Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter” on the website Funny or Die has been watched 3,805,601 times. Add sense of humor to the list.


The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Scene One: “The Power of Celebrity”
Thanks to his starring role as Superman’s foe, General Zod, in this summer’s superhero blockbuster, “Man of Steel,” Shannon now has action figures in his likeness. “When I was doing press for the movie, in every interview,” Shannon says, “someone would ask me, inevitably, ‘Are you prepared for it to all change, for your life to be completely different now?’ And I would kind of get a quizzical look on my face and say, ‘I suppose. I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to,’ but you know, you have enough people ask you that question and you think, maybe it really will, maybe it will be like Beatlemania or something. But it’s not.” Read the rest of this entry »

God at Work: The Divine Genius of Steppenwolf Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney

-News etc., Theater, World Premiere 1 Comment »
Photo: Deana Lawson

Photo: Deana Lawson

By Johnny Oleksinski

“I’m a sock guy. I love socks,” says Tarell Alvin McCraney, glancing down at my feet. I’m wearing striped socks with an alternating spectrum of pinks divided by thin lines of navy blue. That proudly garish footwear is accompanied by a new blazer with patched elbows, a pressed pink shirt buttoned up to the neck, dark skinny jeans and black leather shoes. My outfit was strategic. It’s always ideal to relate to the person you’re interviewing, not unlike in a job interview, and McCraney is an impeccable dresser.

A perusal of his past photo shoots reveals a meticulous ensemble that’s Buddy Holly-cum-GQ model, scholarly but easygoing. Explaining my own prim-and-proper appearance, I tell him that I’m prematurely dressed for the opera—a partly true statement. Sure, I am going to Lyric later, but I’d attend the opera in a hoodie without much hesitation. Right now, I am dressed to impress. “I actually have those socks,” he points out. Skeptically I reply, “I bought them at an H&M, but I’m sure a lot of people make them.” “No. I have those socks. I love socks. If you came on a day when I actually had on clothes, you’d see I have all kinds of socks like polka-dot socks, crazy color socks.”

Today, McCraney, one of the most prominent playwrights of his generation, adorns more casual attire, and he laments the inevitability of another photo shoot for this story. “We need to sell tickets, right?” I nod. “Because usually I’m not thinking about that, so I just showed up in some sweats, some sneakers and white socks for God’s sake.” He assures me, “I never wear white socks.” I tell him, honestly, that I think he looks good. “Oh God, I look like hell. But I always look like hell ‘cause see I’m in tech, so I kinda like—I always look like hell. I’m always just sleeping and reading and then, you know, working on stuff. I don’t go outside.” He laughs a truly disarming laugh. His excuse is as good as any. It is tech week for “Head of Passes,” a world-premiere play by McCraney at Steppenwolf Theatre, where he is an ensemble member. And during tech, as the playwright physically recedes into the darkness and his words become illuminated on the stage, his clothing can become comfy. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 3 Comments »

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
Read the rest of this entry »

Critic’s Postcard: Chicago Theater Takes New York City

Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

“A Twist of Water”/ Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Johnny Oleksinski

I arrived in New York City to an unexpectedly premature November blizzard, the biggest effect of an ill-timed nor’easter. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. After all, this past month New York’s relationship to nature has been understatedly complicated. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New York was an unusual, familiar and inspiring place to be for a few days, especially given my trip’s purpose: to review three plays that ventured eastward from Chicago. For me, the shimmering snow was cold comfort.

“It’s probably snowing, right? Two in three chance it is,” jokes Noah (Stef Tovar) in Route 66 Theatre’s homegrown love letter to Chicago, “A Twist of Water.” In his first direct-address monologue, Noah, a high-school teacher and father, establishes his Windy City dwelling with brotherly sarcastic kinship. The entire audience of New Yorkers sitting in 59e59 Theater Off Broadway laughed, Chicago’s own meteorological reputation apparently preceding itself. Phew. Of all the productions I’d come to review, I was most unnerved by the potential response to Caitlin Montanye Parrish’s work, condensed but potent, that captures the spiritual essence of this city better than any Chicago-set play I’ve ever seen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Iron Stag King: Part One/The House Theatre of Chicago

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow


Wizards. Pirates. Vikings. Politics. Tracy Letts voicing a giant dragon. The first show of the House Theatre’s eleventh season is nothing if not ambitious. Striving to be epic, playwrights Chris Mathews and Nathan Allen (who also serves as artistic director of The House and director of this production) have sought to cram a multitude of themes, characters and backstory into the two-and-a-half-hour part one of the “Iron Stag King” trilogy. Intertwining the legends of King Arthur with early American politics and fantasy sensibilities, the story follows storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain) as he leads a stalwart (if unsure) young man (Brandon Ruiter), a team of warriors and a fanboy (Ben Hertel, providing ample comedic relief) to reclaim a magic hammer and thus the crown of the land. With seating arranged in an arena-like square around an open set allowing for four entrances and exits, the action sequences are thrilling and immediate. Read the rest of this entry »