Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival

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Charles Andrew Gardner and Jeff Parker in “Objects in the Mirror” by Charles Smith/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Kevin Greene

I’ll admit that there are still some parts of the theatrical creative process that I take for granted as a critic. Toward the top of that list is the anxiety a critic’s presence can invoke upon the artists and staff involved in a production. Perhaps I flatter myself but I’m certain there are a few names within our little community that lightly churn the stomach of even the most seasoned vet on opening night. Still, even I can detect a hint of hopeful distance whenever I mention that my tickets are probably filed under “Press.”

I mention this in order to acknowledge the privilege inherent in the role of the critic. Playwrights work on their plays for years in a steady stream of workshops, meetings, further workshops, casting and rehearsing that ultimately culminates in a live performance before an audience. It is at this last stage that we, the critics, enter the equation. Suffice it to say, even the most radiant reviews cannot fully acknowledge the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into producing even the most presentably basic play.

All of which makes the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival such an eye-opening delight. A series of staged readings and developmental productions, New Stages offers a vision of the creative process that many of us make only the barest assumptions about. As a free event, it also offers unprecedented access to the artists involved. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre Company

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Cody Proctor and Nina O'Keefe

Cody Proctor and Nina O’Keefe/Photo: DEF


Something tells me old Anton might have rather enjoyed “Stupid Fucking Bird” if his body had aged as well as his work. Sideshow Theatre Company’s lofty yet godless (re)vision of “The Seagull” is particularly Chekhovian in its absolute conviction of its own pointlessness, lending this one-year-out remount a certain unimpeachable and pitch-perfect irony.

The play is achingly heartfelt and hysterically funny, often simultaneously. Toward the end of the first act, each character is allowed to trump dramatic convention by telling the audience exactly what they want. While most desires are in line with their origin characters—love, admiration, fame, sex—Uncle Sorn (a wonderfully unhurried Norm Woodel) proclaims to want just a hug. “A hug that lasts a month,” he adds melancholically. In an ambitious work full of grand gestures and cutting swipes at grand gestures, it is small moments such as these that key us into the profound subtlety of playwright Aaron Posner’s adaptation.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Inana/TimeLine Theatre Company

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 (l to r) Atra Asdou and Demetrios Troy./Photo: Lara Goetsch.

Atra Asdou and Demetrios Troy/Photo: Lara Goetsch.


Midway through Michele Lowe’s “Inana,” an Iraqi museum curator (Demetrios Troy) argues that the value of art cannot be properly assessed without historical context. His interloper, a renowned forger and his future father-in-law (Anish Jethmalani), contests that beauty affects those who perceive it regardless of circumstance. As a disagreement seemingly without the possibility of resolution, this argument captures the conflict at the heart of Lowe’s play and TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of it.

An ambitious and engrossing love story under the guise of a historical thriller, “Inana” is about the romance between a man and his country, seeking to articulate a specific and yet sadly familiar political context—a grossly misunderstood country on the verge of becoming the focal point of a misguided, self-righteous and not altogether coveted emancipation—while simultaneously exploring the intersections of history, religion and art. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Nice Indian Boy/Rasaka Theatre Company

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(l to r) Kaiser Ahmed and Riley McIlveen/Photo: Scott Dray.

(Kaiser Ahmed and Riley McIlveen/Photo: Scott Dray


A family sitcom isn’t normally something one might consider eye-opening or horizon-expanding, yet Rasaka Theatre Company’s “A Nice Indian Boy” manages both. On the surface this play is about a young man whose fiancé is meeting his parents for the first time. The plot is complicated by the fact that the fiancé is also male, making this about the contemporary issue of gay marriage. Were that the entire picture, then this wouldn’t be anything new, but it’s the added layer of race that elevates this into a play with many things to say. Naveen (Kaiser Ahmed) is a first-generation American of Indian descent. His fiancé, Keshav (Riley McIlveen), is a Caucasian American who was adopted as a child by an Indian couple, and who therefore identifies himself as part of Indian culture.

Most of the show’s comedy comes out of the generational gap between semi-traditional Indian parents (Alka Nayyar and Kamal Hans) adapting to the challenges presented by their children having been raised in and around American culture. Old customs such as arranged marriages are found to be undesirable by their daughter (Suzan Faycurry) and their son’s sexuality and choice of a mate threaten to cause turmoil within the larger community. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Samsara/Victory Gardens

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(l to r) Behzad Dabu, Arya Daire, and Joe Dempsey/Photo: Michael Courier

Behzad Dabu, Arya Daire and Joe Dempsey/Photo: Michael Courier

Lauren Yee’s “Samsara” is sort of like an inverse of history; it begins as farce and ends as tragedy. However Victory Gardens’ world-premiere production seems to forget that the tragedy part is meant to be a surprise. One very large design flaw—literally large as it consists of the entire set—creates a dark and murky tone that works counter to Yee’s playful one. A large black scrim covers most of the back wall and, combined with the bare stage beneath, creates a literal void that sucks the energy right out of it.

And it’s sad, too, because both Yee’s script and the play’s vibrantly generous cast deserve better. Lori Myers and Joe Dempsey play a perfectly imperfect couple by the name of Katie and Craig. They want kids but are unable to have any—cervical tumor—and they aren’t able to afford an American surrogate, so they decide to off-shore. Through a service they hire a woman in India named Suraiya (Arya Daire) to carry their child to term.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Princess Mary Demands Your Attention/Bailiwick Chicago

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(l to r Baron L. Clay, Jr., Pam Mack and Armand Fields/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Baron L. Clay, Jr., Pam Mack and Armand Fields/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Aaron Holland, Bailiwick’s resident playwright, took it upon himself to read one of the world’s longest books, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Grasping Tolstoy’s purpose “to blur the lines between fiction and history, in order to get closer to the truth,” Holland used the classic as a jumping-off place for “Princess Mary Demands Your Attention,” borrowing vigorously from his personal life, recasting the Russian royals as contemporary archetypes to allow for an accessible examination of the lives of fatherless children, religious confusion, love affairs gone awry and the human search for equilibrium. Holland’s gifts for gut-splitting humor and an uncanny sense of dialect that fits in with the rhythms on which the laughs ride are rare magic. His bold attempt works well most of the time, but some of the writing, particularly the monologue sections, feel overindulgent. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Testament of Mary/Victory Gardens Theater

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Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

I love Jesus. Could even say I’ve got a complex. Can’t really blame my Catholic school, they didn’t teach a damn thing about the scriptures. And admittedly a harsh history of my attractions may reveal a Mary Magdalene fixation. But I’ve never been much for the other, mother Mary. As undeniably as the various takes on Jesus are up to interpretation, Mary seems a pure white screen upon which believers project. The Mary that materializes in this one-woman show is intellectually defiant, emotionally devastated and remarkably well spoken for a peasant woman. She’s a full character with a historical chip on her shoulder. She’s a mother, not an icon, even if she is doomed to become the latter.

I’m a skeptic of religion and of theater, which may cast my credentials as an admirer of the Christ and a commentator on the stage in a suspicious light. So, crucify me. This show clearly casts doubt upon the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith, but it doesn’t quite make me believe in the need for its staging either. This play is based on a book—not the “good” book—but a novella by Colm Tóibín.  I left with doubts in the mission of adapting this book into a performance. Despite the unflinchingly gutsy performance by Linda Reiter and the tasteful and expressive set and projection design by Christopher Ash, I suspect everything Tóibín has to offer could be gleaned from reading this on the page. Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Intimate Years: Redtwist Theatre Looks to Season Eleven

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Redtwist Theatre's storefront location

Redtwist Theatre’s storefront location

By Aaron Hunt

With thirty-six Joseph Jefferson nominations and nine wins since Redtwist Theatre’s first show in the Edgewater neighborhood opened in September 2003, it might seem that the company didn’t spend much Cinderella-time by the fireplace. But none of Chicago’s storefront theaters skate through more than ten years without some bumps along the way and this season Redtwist celebrates the anniversary of their residency at 1044 West Bryn Mawr with an eleventh season entitled “Rising From the Ashes.”

I spoke with Redtwist’s artistic director Michael Colucci and original member Johnny Garcia about the company’s journey and the alchemy that has given the company its status and resiliency. Colucci was transplanted from New Jersey to Chicago in 1981. “It was because of a corporate job change,” he says. “The company shipped my boss [here]…and he said, why don’t you come with me? There’s an opening in Chicago.” He smiles. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Colucci arrived at the beginning of Chicago’s storefront theater boom. Body Politic, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens and other financially strapped, artistically rich organizations re-envisioned street-level real estate no longer fiscally viable for traditional business into storytelling spaces. Rent was cheap, and small but ardent collectives of newly graduated artists bursting out of Chicago’s universities remodeled these “homes” for theatrical expression.  Colucci found himself swept into this tidal wave. He studied acting, left his corporate job when his acting career gained momentum, then added coaching and stage direction to his portfolio. His studio became the Actors Workshop Theatre, and then morphed into Redtwist. The company moved into Edgewater in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Wild Party/Bailiwick Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow


At the end of a party I usually feel exhausted. All my energy has been spent. Walking out of Bailiwick Chicago’s “The Wild Party” I felt much the same way. Dulled and listless, like all I wanted to do was pitch over into my bed and pass out. But of course there are two different kinds of exhausted. There’s the good kind, where every last ounce of vigor and joy and joie de vivre has been rung out of me, and I can go to sleep knowing I’ve lived a night well-lived. Then there’s the not-so-good kind, where it feels like I’ve just survived the zombie apocalypse—if the zombies were really interested in drunkenly yammering  about what they did when they went WOOFing after graduation—and I’ve just decided to lay down in a field somewhere and die already. “The Wild Party” left me feeling much like the former —satisfied and spent—even if most of what happened in it bore far more resemblance to the latter. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird/Sideshow Theatre

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Nina O'Keefe/Photo: Jonathan L. Green

Nina O’Keefe (center) /Photo: Jonathan L. Green


In a way Chekhov is a lot like Nirvana, in that it’s really easy to forget how great he was when you’ve been inundated with a century of increasingly pale imitations. If Chekhov’s “The Seagull” were considered his “Nevermind,” then Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” would be Creed’s “HumanClay.” Yet in “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s tragic/comic/foolish/wise/heroic/cowardly (alright, alright Chekhovian) protagonist Konstantin fantasizes about new forms of theater, ones that will shake off the dusty old retreads and lead audiences into a brave new tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that playwright Aaron Posner has chosen “The Seagull” for the funny, heartbreaking, fourth-wall battering post-punk manifesto that is his play “Stupid Fucking Bird.” And happily for both Posner and local audiences alike, Sideshow Theatre Company has given the show a breathless (as in “Breathless”) Chicago premiere.

The play itself is sometimes a little hard to describe in that it simultaneously is “The Seagull” and is not. The characters are all in place (with one notable consolidation) and the story follows the original to a tee… except when it doesn’t. However, the dialogue is all original and Posner creates a number of gorgeous original exchanges, except when he’s directly riffing on the original with smart-ass lines like “Because it’s slimming.” The best way to summarize it is that Posner uses “The Seagull” the way a child uses a Power Rangers action figure to concoct his own original story. He uses it to ask what the hell is wrong with our theater and, by extension, what the hell is wrong with us. Read the rest of this entry »

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