Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: R+J: The Vineyard/Oracle and Red Theater

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Brendan Connelly and McKenna Liesman/Photo: Joe Mazza


There are a few principles of stage drama that every audience member, regardless of age or experience, implicitly understands. Among them is the importance of intentions. More than words, intentions allow actors to truly communicate a playwright’s message. They are especially crucial when characters are literally unable to expressive themselves verbally. Such is the case in “R+J: The Vineyard,” Oracle and Red Theater’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s ill-fated love story set within the ASL community on Martha’s Vineyard in the nineteenth century. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: No Beast So Fierce/Oracle Productions

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Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux. (From L) Katherine Keberlein as Richard III, Mike Steele as Rivers, and Erica Bittner as Queen Elizabeth.

Katherine Keberlein, Mike Steele and Erica Bittner/Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux

The last time that actress Katherine Keberlein and director Max Truax collaborated together, the result was Oracle’s Jeff-Award winning production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Mother,” with Keberlein herself in the lead role. The show was an intoxicating mixture of Brecht and Antonin Artaud—a stomping, beer-hall rally meeting. With “No Beast So Fierce” the two have reunited to take on Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” The results this time are far less rousing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Tempest/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Nate Dendy, Larry Yando and Eva Louise Balistrieri (levitating)/Photo: Liz Lauren


With all the magic in Shakespeare’s plays, “The Tempest” still stands out for its wizardry, with the magician Prospero using supernatural forces to both seek revenge and achieve closure for past wrongs done to him. So it makes a piquant kind of sense for world-renowned magician Teller (the silent half of the Penn & Teller duo) to choose to co-adapt/direct (along with Aaron Posner) this particular show by the bard. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Universal Wolf/Trap Door Theatre

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Antonio Brunetti and Leslie Ruettiger/Photo: Michal Janicki

Antonio Brunetti and Leslie Ruettiger/Photo: Michal Janicki

I’d like to offer an analogy that I think Joan Schenkar, the rare American playwright at the European-leaning Trap Door Theatre, would approve of: “The Universal Wolf” is theater as ouroboros. Insistent on “deconstructing”—a French term for taking the piss, apparently—at every potential dramatic impasse, “The Universal Wolf” consumes itself until its potential for being revelatory has been completely absorbed by its unrelenting need to be referential.

The play has all the hallmarks of a collegiate work. It applies linguistic, philosophical and psychological terms with little regard for their actual usage, leeches on to pre-established mythical structures while simultaneously attempting to break them down, and possesses a grating, indulgent cockiness. All of which causes this already incomprehensible work to border on being distasteful. And not in the way Schenkar likely intended with her broad use of burlesque sexuality and dusty macabre humor. Named for a line from one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous and—notably—under-produced works, “The Universal Wolf” reeks of half-baked intellectualism’s cheap cologne.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona/Oak Park Festival Theatre

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Tim Martin, David Keohane and Scot West

Is there a more appropriate way to pass the dog days than with Shakespeare’s canine comedy? This early, patchy and problematic work—whose dramatic summit is the appearance of Crab, the melancholic mutt—is essentially a two-and-a-half-hour warm-up exercise for the career to come. Its glimpses of genius in training are scattered within a plot that lurches rather than flows and ends without delivering a dose of poetic justice. To succeed on stage, “Verona” must be played as a pure farce, distracting us from the script’s dropped stitches. It shouldn’t just be the dog that chews the scenery.

Director Lavina Jadhwani—together with costumer Emily McConnell—sets the action circa 1983, with doltish suitor Thurio (Tim Martin) done up “Preppy Handbook” style, and everyone else bringing back long-repressed memories of the Brat Pack and “Beverly Hills 90210.” Maybe it’s meant to link the feudal arrogance of Verona’s privileged gentlefolk with the consumerist excesses of the Reagan era. Or maybe the troupe is just having a little retro fun. Unfortunately, the silliness is only skin deep, plastered atop a sometimes sticky earnestness. The result is a show that’s serviceable and intermittently entertaining, but which never achieves a consistent tone or point of view. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Titus Andronicus Project/The Home for Wayward Artists and The Public House Theatre

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Titus Project 1

Dear theater-goer, as “The Titus Andronicus Project” at The Public House Theatre demonstrates, never pay good money to see any theatrical production with the word “project” in its title. That epithet suggests some dubious result of modern industrial teamwork, like the Hoover Dam or a three-year ethno-musicological study of the war songs of the Arawak Indians.

This “project” was the fruit of seven months’ labor by an energetic troupe of young actors calling themselves The Home for Wayward Artists, who, with the best intentions, may have believed they could rescue Shakespeare’s poorest play from the contempt voiced by critics such as George Bernard Shaw, who said of  Titus that “Beaumont and Fletcher… wrote a good deal that was pretty disgraceful, but at all events [the later Shakespeare] had educated them out of the possibility of writing Titus Andronicus.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Storm/Moon Fool and Walkabout Theater Company

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McCambridge Dowd­-Whipple

McCambridge Dowd-Whipple (front) and ensemble


At first, given the emphasis on magic and the dirgey, chant-oriented music, one could be forgiven for thinking “Storm,” a collaboration between international collective Moon Fool and Chicago’s Walkabout Theater Company, might be a sneak peak of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s forthcoming adaptation of “The Tempest,” as envisioned by Teller (of Penn & Teller) to the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Yet Walkabout and Moon Fool take more liberties with Shakespeare’s text than I imagine even CST is comfortable with. As it stands, purists may want to avoid this one. Everyone else should come right in.

In this production, the choreography is really the main event, though it can be a double-edged sword depending on your proclivity for the highly interpretive. On one hand, the invigorating movement regularly deepens and abstracts the play’s themes of loneliness and the illusion of agency. On the other, like the titular storm itself, it tends to wash away this production’s foundation. As a work in progress, there is no reason to believe that creator/director Anna-Helena McLean won’t temper her own admirable impulses toward acrobatics in order to better facilitate her fascinating adaptation. As it stands, this iteration is a sophisticated yet feral dance performance that contains illusions to Shakespeare. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well/Stage Left Theatre

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Jeremy Trager and Melanie Derleth/Photo: Johnny Knight


If “All’s Well That Ends Well” is, as some critics insist, a “problem comedy,” then director Drew Martin, by setting the play in the Mafia-land of television’s popular series, “The Sopranos,” has smeared, if not completely erased, the comedy’s challenges by darkening the dramatics and upping the merriment, giving Stage Left Theatre a most happy surprise.

In this contemporary setting, it is easier to believe that such a Shakespearian heroine as Helena would be not only allowed, but assisted by familial figures, to publicly pursue, marry and then trick into marital consummation the recalcitrant, reluctant, callow youth of her choosing. Melanie Derleth makes the momentous task of playing Helena seem like a walk in the park; every moment is real and sure, and for the little time she is offstage, the world is a gloomier place. Luke Daigle throws himself fervently at the playing of the most despicable leading youth in the canon; Daigle plays Bertram’s reformation from the heart. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Titus Andronicus/Babes With Blades Theatre Company

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(l to r) Amy E. Harmon, Kimberly Logan/Photo: Steven Townsend

Amy E. Harmon, Kimberly Logan/Photo: Steven Townsend


Sitting in the audience waiting for Babes with Blades’ all-female production of “Titus Andronicus” to begin, I did what any audience member does and took in the set, designed here by Carolyn Voss. I thought to myself “Hmm, grey stone columns, red Nazi-ish banners, long sheets of plastic painted to look like marble… they’re going with a ‘fascism’ interpretation. Okeedoke.”

However two-and-a-half hours later, as the final quarts of blood were being spilt, I took a look again and saw something else. I saw a serial killer’s basement. (The long sheets of plastic give off a very “Christian Bale explaining to Jared Leto the utter sublimity of Huey Lewis and the News” vibe.) And you know what? For a play that has the murderous glee of a “Call of Duty” game with the body count to match, that’s about right. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Marie Antoinette/Steppenwolf

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(left to right) Ericka Ratcliff (Yolande De Polignac), Tamberla Perry (Therese De Lamballe) and ensemble member Alana Arenas/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Underneath its bass-dropping, high-fashion-flouting, sick-opening-credits-having exterior, David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette” is actually pretty old-fashioned. It might as well be an update of Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” It tracks the fall from grace of a ruling figure who, while they might have been a really terrible ruler, is nonetheless deserving of their due as a complex, often sympathetic, human. Substitute Shakespeare’s flowered verse for Adjmi’s Paris-Hilton-gone-clubbing inflections and the two are pretty identical.

What’s fresh about Adjmi’s take on France’s most famously tragic (or is it tragically famous?) queen is that it is tailor-made for a modern understanding of celebrity. Adjmi’s Marie has been born into a life of riches and fame. She knows nothing else, and is as much a product of her environment as she is its progenitor.

Under the gleefully propulsive direction of New York theater artist Robert O’Hara, Steppenwolf’s Marie Antoinette also has the benefit of being portrayed by the fiercely intelligent and elegantly crass Alana Arenas. Her performance alone makes Marie a woman worthy of our attention. Read the rest of this entry »

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