Dance

Monday, 13 March 2017 12:34

Review: Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz"

"The Wiz" is a perfect collision of disco and show tunes. Appearing on Broadway in 1975, "The Wiz" went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. Though it was not the first all-black production on Broadway, the cross-over appeal of its music made it a sensation. A few years later it was adapted for film starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horn. The film is considerably different than the stage version, for the worse. 

 

Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" accentuates all the enduring qualities of the show while adding some modern flare of its own. This has to be the hardest working cast in Chicago right now. For two and a half solid hours director Lili-Anne Brown's cast of talented singers and dancers fill the space with an infectious energy. Sydney Charles as Dorothy is cute and brings a sense of humor to the character, her soaring vocals come to an inspiring crest during "Home." Though, it may well be Frederick Harris in the titular role (in fabulous drag no less) who walks away with the evening's biggest laughs. There's not a sour note in this production and each song is either a powerhouse ballad or a funky dance number. 

 

One of the show's many pleasant surprises is the costuming and overall aesthetic. This is highly conceptualized version that suits the intimate space at Theatre Wit. Borrowing from 90s-era TLC and blending it with today's street fashion, costume designer Virginia Varland creates a very stylish motif in an otherwise minimal set. The ensemble looks as great as they sound. 

 

Lili-Anne Brown doesn't complete her update of "The Wiz" with costumes alone. There's some fairly edgy humor written into this production, including a nod to the prevalence of police brutality cellphone videos. This version of "The Wiz" is how it was originally intended to be–for adults. What the movie and the NBC live version miss is a lot of the grown-up humor in the script. After all, this is an urban contemporary version of the Wizard of Oz, it should be cheeky. Miss Brown's vision for Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" is a lot of fun and keeps its source material relevant. 

 

Through April 16th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150

*Extended through April 23rd

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Replacing the twenty-eight-year long-running hit show "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind", which was known for delivering thirty original plays in sixty minutes with an ever-changing cast, is a new troupe of high energy players each with their own personal gifts and comedic skills. In the same tradition, Neo Futurium now presents The Infinite Wrench. 

Greg Allen, the original founder of the name and style of such theater decided to revoke the use of the name and concept a few years after he left the troupe in 2011. The last performance of “Too Much Light” came on December 31st, 2016. The show, as most know, was a longtime late-night fixture in Chicago. All I know is that two of my best buddies in college spent four years with me honing exactly these type of skills, improvising and then writing/performing - John C Reilly and Phil Ridarelli. While John went off to make films fairly quickly after school, Phil worked hard for years with the original Neo Futurist members to turn "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" into the thoughtful, yet funny and exciting theater experience it was. “Too Much Light” went on to become the longest running theatre- production in Chicago’s history and became an iconic piece of our pop culture. Though the new show could very well be just as unique and exciting (and I do look forward to seeing what it will develop into), I’ll certainly miss Phil and some of those older members. 

That said, the new troupe has an energy all their own. The topics of the plays were more political in nature, which I liked. For example, one consisted of an actor writing DECENCY at one end of a thirty-foot-long chalkboard then drawing a LONG line to the words CHILD RAPE, finally drawing a line below the word CHILD RAPE that points to the word BREITBART, comparing the publication to that dark side of the spectrum, which was quite funny. 

The Infinite Wrench creates a team atmosphere, each guest receiving a name tag with a color upon walking into the theatre. Teams are decided by the color designated and get to decide the next play by yelling out their color when the actors say “Next” at the end of their sketch. Five stations each of different colors (red, blue, green, pink, and yellow) hold five plays that are randomly selected by the actor after running towards the color the actors hear first. But the overall goal is to complete thirty plays in sixty minutes, a timer set just after the actors explain the rules to the audience. 

Each play varies in content and could come in the form of monologues, musical numbers and/or group sketches, some being silly-funny (First Man on the Moon) while some poignant and some perhaps a bit nonsensical. The audience is warned by the actors that all plays, inspired by something they have experienced, might not be as funny when acted out as they may have been while writing them. If such is the case, the play is scrapped and a new one reworked into the next show though new plays are worked in weekly regardless. Each play introduced into the show is written by one of the performing actors.  

The Infinite Wrench has big shoes to fill in replacing such a popular Chicago theatre pastime that has actually created its own cult-like following. After watching the show in its opening weekend and seeing the highly-animated actors go to work and the material that was so well presented, but especially noting the positive crowd reaction, I am quite sure the Neo-Futurist tradition will carry on, seamlessly. 

I LOVE the way the actors involve the audience throughout the entire show. I have been asked onstage to play the piano, I have shouted out the word PINK at inappropriate moments to huge laughs. The Neo-Futurists offer a very special and freewheeling, uniquely Chicagoan, way of viewing theater. 

There are often performer antics taking place in the lobby before and after the show, and are low-priced snacks at the end of the Hall of Presidents entryway enroute to the theatre itself. 

Should this new, and very talented, cast keep the heart in what they’re doing, as did The Neo-Futurists in the past, The Infinite Wrench will continue to run for another twenty-eight years. The creative production team and actors include Kurt Chiang, Trevor Dawkins, Nick Hart, Jeewon Kim, Kirsten Riiber, Malic White, Ida Cuttler, Tif Harrison, Dan Kerr-Hobert, Lily Mooney and Leah Urzendowski Courser.  

Where does the name come from?

As mentioned on the Neo-Futurists home page for the show - The title of our show The Infinite Wrench is partly inspired by text from Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” (1914). Loy was briefly associated with the original Italian Futurists, and wrote her manifesto in response to some of the group’s establishing principles.

If you are disabled or have a hard time walking, please note the theatre is not wheelchair accessible and that climbing a flight of stairs is necessary to enter the theatre. However, they do honor accessibility requests and offer to assist the best they can. To find out more about making an accessibility request, click here.  

The price is right and even paying to get in is part of the fun. Tickets are just $9 plus a role of the dice that add an extra $2-$12. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. For more show information, click here

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 06 March 2017 19:22

On the Run with Marriott's Madagascar

Charming, colorful and inventive, the Marriot Theater’s Madagascar – A Musical Adventure, for young audiences, is a fun-filled ride with themes that will surely resonate with both kids and adults.

 

Based on the popular 2005 film by DreamWorks Animation, Madagascar centers around four main characters from the Central Park Zoo: Alex the Lion (Russell Mernagh), Marty the Zebra (James Earl Jones II), Melman the Giraffe (Stephen Schellhardt), and Gloria the Hippo (Rashada Dawan).

 

At first glance this fun-loving group seems happy enough to perform for park visitors, especially the king of the jungle, Alex the Lion, who is in his element prancing around the stage, showing off his perfected “roar”. But when presented with the idea of freedom by a cadre of hilarious and enterprising penguins who say “it’s not natural to be in a zoo,” Marty the Zebra, to the surprise of his friends, makes a run for it.

 

Having lived their entire lives in captivity, Alex, Melman and Gloria are shocked that Marty would even consider leaving the comfortable life of the Central Park Zoo. But in the spirit of true friendship, they push their misgivings aside and embark on a rip-roaring adventure that eventually lands them in the exotic wilds of Madagascar.

 

The quirky and pompous lemur King Julien (wonderfully played by Jonathan Butler-Duplessis) is a joy to watch as he tries to incorporate Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria, in his masterplan to rid the island of the fossa who hunt and attack his fellow lemurs. However, this plan goes awry as Alex, who now has to fend for himself in the wild, can’t contain his animal instincts and attacks Marty.

 

Directed and choreographed by Matt Raftery, Madagascar – A Musical Adventure, hits all the right notes in “crack-a-lackin’” style as Mernagh and Jones also shine in their roles with both chemistry and good-natured fun, as they show that in the end true friendship can overcome even the “laws of nature”.

 

Perhaps of the best moment of the production is the high-energy rendition of “Move It, Move It!” which gets the crowd clapping and kids, as well as adults, up on their feet.

 

Colorful costume and props really enhance the performance, bringing this animated favorite vividly to life. “Madagascar is already an established idea,” said Jesus Perez, costume designer and assistant director, “but since this is a live production and not a movie, it has opened up a world of creativity for us. This is the perfect vehicle for me as a designer to bring this fantastical world to life.”

 

The talented cast, which also includes: Leah Morrow as “Skipper,” Liam Quealy as “Kowalski,” Laura Savage as “Mort and Private,” Elena Romanowski as “Rico,” Samantha Pauly as “Maurice,” and Jed Feder as “Mason,” won’t disappoint as they sing and dance to some of your favorite tunes from the movie.

 

Recommended

 

All performances are followed by a question and answer session with the cast.

 

Madagascar – A Musical Adventure, playing at the Marriott Theater located in the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort, runs through April 15 Tuesdays through Sundays at 10 a.m. with certain performances at 12:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit www.marriotttheatre.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Just after the show’s beginning, Jackie Taylor asks the crowd what the world needs. In unison, many voices shout back, “Love!”. And when do we need it? “Now!” Love is the theme in Black Ensemble’s latest production, From Jackie with Love (What the World Needs Now), a three-day engagement that centers around loving one another and putting away with senseless violence and racism. Wasting no time getting to the point, Taylor begins the program with an inspired version of the self-explanatory titled “No Matter What Race”, a song that sets the tone for what is to follow. 

For those unfamiliar with Jackie Taylor and her contributions to the Chicago Theatre community, she is the Founder and Executive Director of the Black Ensemble Theater, producing, writing and directing in nearly all its presentations. Prior to her work with Black Ensemble, Taylor, a theatre grad from Loyola University, made her mark on the Chicago stage where she performed at many venues including The Goodman Theater and Victory Gardens Theater. The talented actress also made her presence known in film and television as she was featured in 1976’s Cooley High and later appeared in Barber Shop II, Losing Isiah, Chiraq, Early Edition and The Father Clements Story among several others. 

From Jackie with Love is a production from the heart. Backed up by Black Ensemble’s accomplished band featuring Musical Director Robert Reddrick on drums, Taylors swoops into a collection of songs that are sure to pull the heartstrings of most, each written by hers truly. Throughout the show, Taylor breaks from music giving the audience a peek at her personal life be it by short stories or in the performance of monologues that were meaningful to her from such as A Raisin in the Sun, a play she declares as her “favorite of all time” written by Lorraine Hansberry.

Taylor reminisces about her time as a teacher in the Chicago Public School system, her childhood while living in Cabrini Green and growing up thinking her mother did not love her. She talks passionately about her persistence in moving forward with Black Ensemble even when its outcome seemed bleakest. 

“I am fortunate enough to have spent my life teaching in Chicago Public Schools, at colleges like Loyola University and Roosevelt University and in numerous, numerous programs as an artist teacher,” says Taylor. “Along the way, I created Black Ensemble Theater, raised a wonderfully intelligent daughter and now have the best grandson in the whole wide world.”

Taylor is accompanied on stage by Black Ensemble veterans Rhonda Preston, David Simmons and Yahdinah Udeen who serve as back up vocalists for Taylor and offer friendly banter back and forth. Each is showcased in their own featured number, Preston stunning the crowd with a vocal demonstration for the books in “A Mother’s Love” and Udeen performing an emotionally-charged rendition of “Mother’s Lament”, a moving song that Taylor could write a play about on its own. Simmons closes the second of three sets with the lively number “Happy Ending”. Each are again brought to the forefront towards the end of the show in a piece that has each one, including Taylor, breaking out dance moves.  

All songs performed in From Jackie with Love are written by Jackie Taylor, a couple borrowed from past Black Ensemble productions. As Simmons states about the production, “The show is called From Jackie with Love because it really is from Jackie – all of it – and with tons of love.”

It’s easy to see Taylor’s high level of comfort on stage whether it be singing, dancing, acting, interacting with the audience or even playing guitar – the same one her mother bought for her as a child. The stage is her playground, but more so a tool to bring people together. 

“Through the hundreds of plays that I have produced, written and directed – I never lost my passion for performing,” says Taylor on taking the stage once again. It’s clear the passion is still there along with the talent as she still performs with command.

From Jackie with Love is a nice way to meet the woman behind Black Ensemble, bringing with it a positive message in that life is too short to waste time hating when we can be loving each other. It’s a simple message but powerful as she eludes to the root of the issue being that of money and greed also recognizing the steps that are taken to program our children towards violence at such a young age. A warm tribute is made to the many young black men who have lost their lives – just for being black. Taylor’s message is delivered ever so profoundly in this production that is also sure to entertain with its vast variety of touching songs.

From Jackie with Love (What the World Needs Now) is being performed at The Black Ensemble Theater only for a limited time. For tickets and schedule information click here.

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Flanagan is dead. Crushed by luggage, the resident roustabout has left us too early. Leaving a healthy amount of family and friends behind, we gather at a local pub in Grapplin, County Sligo, Ireland to celebrate the life of our dear Flanagan. A large, wooden crate holding the body of the recently deceased is perched in the center of the room with the words “This Side Up” printed largely on its side, the arrow facing down. Fiona Finn is in attendance, Flanagan’s fiancée of twenty-two years, along with his closest friend and fellow drinking partner Brian Ballybunion, Father Damon Fitzgerald, Mayor O’Doul, who also serves as the pub’s bartender, Mother Flanagan and a host of other assorted characters. It is time to pay our respects, share memories, enjoy a pint – and laugh. 

Flanagan’s Wake is a long-running interactive comedy that turns the audience into guests that participate in the mourning, and revering, of the departed Flanagan. Wake attendees are seated at tables throughout the venue where cast members dole out name tags that add “Patrick” after the names of men and “Mary” to those of the women. In my case, I became “Ken Patrick”. After a heartfelt, and vey humorous greeting by Father Damon Fitzgerald, Fiona Finn, appropriately dressed in a black dress, makes her way to the “casket” to say a few words. As she approaches the raised platform she thanks a guest (an audience member) for “wearing their fancy denim” to her loved one’s wake. 

Thick, often hilariously exaggerated, accents are used throughout the night as the cast pokes fun at one Irish stereotype after another. Father Damon Fitzgerald often recites from The Bible’s Book of Kevin, a book he insists was excluded (thanks to a conspiracy in the church) as were the books Jerry and Jared. “Death is a poor man’s doctor,” he would also preach. 

In helping to create Flanagan’s backstory, the cast seeks help from show goers asking questions like, “What was your favorite memory with Flanagan?” Or, “How did you know Flanagan?” No two shows will be alike as the cast improvises from audience response piecing together a wild series of new memories, mishaps and events during each performance. In fact, the audience greatly steers the direction of the story. As funny as the interplay between the characters is with each other, the same can be said for its interaction with the audience. We are spoken to as if Flanagan was a close loved one. At one point a table of guests are asked to come forward to do that cherished Irish dance that Flanagan loved so much. “You guys are terrible,” says Father Fitzgerald. “What happened? You were so good before.” 

The interactive play runs smoothly and literally churns out a laugh a minute thanks to some veteran involvement.

“We’re thrilled to have Jack Bronis, original Director, and Bonnie Shadrake, original Music Director, onboard,” says producer Bill Collins. “Their return ensures the production will have all the fun and humor that made it a huge hit in Chicago.” 

Cast members are in character from the moment one walks into the banquet hall-like room and make the entire area their stage for the duration of the show – even the washrooms.

The wonderfully selected and seriously funny cast stars Steve Peebles as Father Damon Fitzgerald (who you might remember for his stellar performance in last summer's First Folio production of A Midsummer Night's Dream), Greg Dodds as Mayor O'Doul, Chase Wheaton-Werle as Brian Ballybunion, Luciana Bonifazi as Fiona Finn, Susan Wingerter as Kathleen, Alex DiVirgilio as Mickey and Derek Brummet as Mother Flanagan. It is this lively cast of skilled improv artists that so well bring back to life (or death) this classic interactive play that has been a smash hit in Chicago since 1994.

Flanagan’s Wake has taken a new home at Chicago Theater Works near Belmont and Sheffield, running in tandem with the ever-popular Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Its run is open-ended though performances vary due to its shared space. A full bar is available throughout the show for beverage purchases and tickets range from a highly reasonable $29-$34. To find out more about this very funny and genuinely rich experience, check its show schedule or to purchase tickets, click here.  

Who ever thought a wake could be so much fun? 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Lifeline Theatre is currently bringing to life the 1963 Madeline L’Engle award-winning, sci-fi novel for young adults, A Wrinkle in Time. It is the first in a series of five books that follow the escapades of Meg Murray, a thirteen-year-old student whom her teachers see as stubborn and difficult. The story follows Meg’s adventure as she and her younger brother, Charles Wallace (a prodigy child genius), search through space and time for their missing scientist father who has vanished after working on a mysterious project called a tesseract. It is during this pursuit that Meg and Charles Wallace, along with along with school friend, Calvin O’Keefe, run into a myriad of characters that get stranger and stranger along the way. 

Before long they find out their true enemy is a bodiless brain called IT, who controls the planet Camazotz and communicates through The Man with Red Eyes. IT’s mission is to robotize everyone by removing their free will. At the same time, another evil force lurks throughout the universe that is only known as The Black Thing. A tall order for the trio of children to conquer on their own, help comes to them in the form of the three Mrs. W’s – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which – each of whom offers a special power, or insight, in their fight to save their father. It is an exploit where the impossible becomes possible and courage and love proves to be the strongest force of all.

Lifeline brought this classic story to the stage first in 1990 based on the adaptation of James Sie. It returned in 1998 and is back today, nineteen years later. Probably not the easiest story to adapt for the stage, Lifeline does a remarkable job in creating a futuristic world full of color and space age lighting as they do in creatively staging special effects such as flying through time. The set is skillfully designed to give us the appearance of being lost in the dark vastness when needed, or to find ourselves light years away on a strange planet in a strange universe. Finely-crafted original costumes and hi-tech sound effects sprinkle the final touches in fashioning this ultramodern world we are thrust into for two hours. 

Meg Murray needs an exterior that is defiant and bold, though underneath she is smart, confident and caring. Jamie Cahill is able to capture these qualities to give us a believable Meg, for without the play does not work. Cahill is bratty when called for, rebelliously shouting to get her way, she is appropriately emotional as she longs for her father and she is convincing as a teen who would be curious and astonished as a journey such as hers unfolds. 

Trent Davis took on the role of Charles Wallace for the play’s opener, taking turns during its run with Davu Smith also cast for the role. Davis exhibits some mature acting chops for such a young man, impressing the audience with his fitting facial expressions, natural line delivery and comic timing. Rounding out the well-cast triad of adventurous kids is Glenn Obrero as Calvin O’Keefe, who is fun to watch as the eldest of the three, kind of taking on a big brother role. 

Though his role wasn’t as expanded as many others in this production, Michael McKeogh still leaves an impression as Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, persuasively revealing the father-like qualities any kid would want to have in their own parents. Each of the three Mrs. W’s adds their own spark whether by oddities in their own character or in humorous musings with each other or the children - Mrs. Whatsit (Madeline Pell), Mrs. Who (Javier Ferreira) and Mrs. Which (Carmen Molina). Slightly changing from the novel, The Man with Red Eyes becomes known simply as Red Eyes, and is fiercely played by Naima Hebrail who towers over the stage and crowd with her commanding voice and tremendous presence. 

If unfamiliar with Madeline L’Engle’s novel, the stage version is easy enough to follow and enjoy as a new adventure. However, this production might be a bit more special for those who have read the book as we get to see an imaginative recreation of a story many of us have held so close to our hearts as young readers opened up to a new world.

Family-friendly and keenly directed by Elise Kauzlaric, A Wrinkle in Time is a true time traveling quest for some of us to fondly reminisce and for some of us to experience its magic for the first time. A Wrinkle in Time is being performed at Lifeline Theatre through April 9th. For more show information, click here.    

*Extended through April 23rd       

  

 

Published in Theatre in Review

I thoroughly enjoyed the world premiere of Jesus the Jew: As Told by His Brother James. The play is the seventeenth work produced by Forum Productions. The one-man show by playwright William Spatz is very well-written and in my opinion contains some of the answers of the most important issues facing our society today with regards to antisemitism and the violence propagated against Christians and or Jewish Christians in this country and others around the world. 

 

Actor, Steven Strafford plays a modern-day professor of religious history who has just found out his brother John has been tortured and killed in an attack in Syria. He then travels back and forth in time to portray James, the brother of Jesus, one of the mainstays of his research. Strafford's performance is compelling and rich. 

 

Jeremy, as James thanks the audience for coming whether they are Jews, Christians or Jewish Christians. This designation is very important especially in the political climate currently where all three groups are regularly singled out in some countries and sentenced to death by beheading if they do not renounce their Christian and/or Jewish ties. 

 

This play is of particular interest to me because I am a Jewish Christian or Messianic Jew. That is a person who is Jewish by birth who continues to believe that Jesus was Jewish and was the Messiah sent to save the Jewish people and later the non-Jews from the belief that we are just helpless animal-like human beings in bodies which have no actual active spiritual life that continues after death of the human body. We also believe that God is a loving forgiving being that abhors killing of humans and animals, indeed cruelty to women and all living things. 

 

I was given a very complete three-year education in Jewish history and religious practices before completing my bat mitzvah and the only mention of Jesus, if any that I recall, was that Jesus was to be looked at as a Rabbi gone mad - a religious traitor to the Jewish people whose new ideas threatened to destroy Judaism rather than elevate it to new levels of generosity and higher spiritual intelligence. I have often wondered how the separation of Jesus' Jewish birth and the statement he made regarding incarnating in a human body specifically for the Jewish people turned into an entirely new religion called Christianity – a religion that proceeded to make a scapegoat of the Jews when Roman occupation and laws actually caused the killing of Jesus. I've also wondered how Christians and especially Catholics who - on the one hand - give great honor to Mary, Jesus' mother, seem to have completely forgotten the fact that Mary the Mother of God was a JEWISH woman named Miriam. And how can modern Christians continue to refer with reverence to the Gospels written by Jesus' disciples as inspired by God without recalling that ALL the disciples of Jesus were JEWISH?

 

James’ finally answers this question in the last hours of his life in the play when he is about to be put to death (after 30 years of leading Jewish Christians) for not renouncing his brother's and his own Jewish faith. 

 

The apostle Paul is well known among feminists for his damning letters stating that women should have no place in the new Church and should be subject to all the discrimination that Jesus himself stressed many times should end by interacting with women, healing them and insisting that they receive the same education his male apostles were receiving. During this council, the apostle Paul effectively overthrew James’ leadership by declaring a new law that if a Jewish person believed in Jesus they must stop all Jewish religious practices and laws or be sentenced to death.

 

Jeremy as James also made it clear that Mary was from a wealthy family and financially supported Jesus and, by extension, financially supported many of the apostles that followed Jesus. Mary Magdalene was NOT by any stretch of the sexist imagination a "prostitute" as many since have claimed. 

 

James states that Jesus and Mary were indeed married per the Jewish tradition and although it was not brought up in this play, their marriage gives some credence to the theory that Mary Magdalene, Jesus' legal wife, gave birth to a daughter after his death, directly continuing the spiritually royal bloodline of Jesus himself. It’s been said that she and her daughter were escorted to safety by her father and sailed to France to raise her daughter.

 

There is some humor in the play when James says, “Lots of Jewish mothers think their sons can walk on water, but in this case…”

 

The production team includes: Milo Blue (scenic design), Hailey Rakowiecki (costume design), David Trudeau (lighting design), Alex Kleiner (sound design), Ron Rude (production manager) and Sarah Knoke (stage manager). This team does a great job decorating the set with objects of art from both modern and ancient times. The interesting props keep one’s eyes busy looking at the beautiful colorful aspects of that historic period while keeping the audience firmly in the present with offstage interruptions by reporters seeking interviews with him and friends or family who are trying to help Jeremy stay calm and sane in the face of the news that his brother has been tortured first then killed. 

 

Jesus The Jew delivers the most important message of our time, that the division of Jews from Christians and the division of Jesus from his own Jewish followers and people came from a political move - a political document written to serve the Romans and the ambitions of one aggressive sect of new Christians/Jews led by the apostle Paul. 

 

My only complaint about the well-written and well-documented play is that it does not delve deep enough into the horrors and centuries of suffering that this rift initiated by the apostle Paul caused. Actually using the word “horror” is inadequate to describe the current situation for both Christians and Jewish Christians - the Holocaust or recent be-headings of Christians and Jewish Christians around the world and the suffering of women subject to the new rules of Bible thumping-Jew hating Christians who have been forced to follow their husband’s commands even under extreme abuse. 

 

James even acknowledges that as he gives his last sermon before he is put to death that there may not be any Jewish Christians left to hear his final pleas for a meaningful, literal and political reunion of the Jewish and Christian people. That strongly resonated with me because I am the ONLY Jewish Christian that I have ever met (other than my mother who had a similar late life realization) who sees Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi and miracle maker of the highest order, the human incarnation of God on earth.

 

I highly recommend this compelling, well-paced and delicately handled theater piece for anyone who is interested in a more realistic view of daily life during Jesus' time, or is seeking similar comfort that Jewish Christians still actually exist. 

 

Jesus the Jew: As Told by his Brother James is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through March 26th. For more information on this show, click here.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

For those looking for about as much funny as can be compacted into sixty minutes, one would be hard pressed to find as many laughs as The Best of Bri-Ko, a sidesplitting theatre experience where the absurd is creatively implemented into a series of sketch acts, each one stranger than the next. 

Stage 773 Creative Director Brian Posen teams up with Chicago comedic forces Tim Soszko and Brian Peterlin to form this hilarious hour-long ride where just a single word is spoken throughout the entire performance. The three theatre veterans are able to inject their unique humorous spin into such simple everyday tasks from changing a light bulb to a having a dinner date that have the audience in stitches from the moment they take the stage to the show’s very climactic ending. A series of props are used in practically every sketch performed including water balloons, heads of lettuce, cream pies and other very messy items, making it as though a tornado had swept through the venue by the show’s end. Caution – you might become a victim of friendly fire.

Varying from one extreme to the other, a heavy-duty Nerf gun war breaks out throughout the crowd to Slayer’s “Angel of Death” while moments later we become subject to a hysterical dance routine to Wilson Phillip’s “Hold On” that you must see to fully appreciate. Adding to the intimate, and very unusual, theatre experience is the fact that the production is performed in Stage 773’s Cab Theatre, a smaller-sized room so as to easily involve the entire audience. 

"With so much buzz today about what's appropriate in comedy, Bri-Ko is a breath of fresh air," says Stage 773 Creative Director Brian Posen. "This is a hilariously entertaining show without the politics or controversies you typically see with this genre."

Poesen couldn’t be more correct. If you were to throw bits and pieces into a blender from Blue Man Group, The Marx Brothers and various vaudevillian acts, inject it with steroids, then douse it with Posen, Soszko and Peterlin’s own exclusive brand of humor, you’d have Bri-Ko – a true one-of-a-kind comedy event that goes from 0-60mph in seconds flat. 

Posen, Soszko and Peterlin work incredibly well together, exhibiting not only a well-oiled team chemistry but each having plenty of their own moments mainly done with key facial expressions and challenging physical comedy. No question about it, Bri-Ko is a power-packed hour of pure fun that can be enjoyed over and over again. 

There is no shortage of stage experience in this very exceptional cast. Jeff and After Dark Award Winner Brian Posen has been active in the Chicago theater scene for over 20 years as an actor, producer, director, and teacher. Posen and Peterlin have worked together for years, in 2001, alongside Brian Posen, founding The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, now the largest in the nation. Tim Soszko teaches at Second City, Barrel of Monkeys and Columbia College while performing with many companies including Bri-Ko, The Cupid Players and The Tim and Micah Project.

The Best of Bri-Ko is being performed at Stage 773 in the Cab Theatre each Thursday through March 23rd before reworking material and returning this Fall. 

Very, very recommended.

For tickets and/or more show information click here.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Never has a play about journalism, the presidency and Cold War with Russia seemed more relevant than now. And The Columnist, performed by The American Blues Theater at Stage 773, is all of that and more. In a story that could have easily been set during today’s heated political environment, The Columnist is a scintillating tale of family, power, betrayal and personal struggle.

 

Written by the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning author David Auburn and directed by Keira Fromm, The Columnist is based on real-life journalists Joe Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson) and his brother Stewart Alsop (Coburn Goss). Once a power writing duo, the play begins with Joe, now one of America’s most influential columnists - both feared and beloved, caught in a revealing and compromising position in a Moscow hotel.

 

That affair and its consequences runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire play as we see Joe battle for power, his ideas on what American exceptionalism entails and how the president (both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) should achieve it no matter the costs. We also see his struggle to keep his private life separate from the illusion he creates for the public.

 

Johnson is exquisite and brilliant in the role of Joe Alsop and very capably humanizes such a towering political figure of the time.

 

Joe is a man who loves his country and family with equal and blinding passion but in the rapidly changing world of the 1960’s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, his inability to see beyond his own beliefs pushes away those closest to him. He manages to alienate even some of his most ardent admirers and colleagues.

 

However, despite the growing distance between Joe and his family – his perfectly cast, dutiful and charming wife Susan (played by the equally charming Kymberly Mellen), his precocious stepdaughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith) and his sincere and loyal brother Stewart, what is conveyed even at some of his lowest points is how much they still love him despite his many flaws.

 

Stewart and Abigail are perhaps two of Joe’s most pivotal relationships. Several key moments come when they both show not only how much they understand him, as well as what drives him, but also their acceptance of the contradiction of his public figure and private life. This understanding and acceptance comes even though they often disagree with his passionate defense of the war as well as his methods of squashing the dissenting views of fellow journalists. Both Goss and Meredith play their roles with such depth and nuance that it’s easy to feel their characters’ compassion for such a complex man.

 

The ability of Auburn to delve so deeply into these relationships and to keep the plot moving at the fast pace of an intriguing spy novel is impressive. Also, very impressive and effective is the staging and the way several of the more dramatic moments are highlighted, especially during transitions. After several poignant and emotional scenes, having Joe stand in a single spotlight as the darkened set changes behind him is a powerful effect, and whether intended or not, is a reflection of the often-tumultuous changes happening in his life.

 

The creative team for The Columnist: Joe Schermoly (scenic design), Christopher J. Neville (costume design), Jared Gooding (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Alec Long (props design), Sarah E. Ross (production manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Sara Illiatovitch-Goldman (dramaturg), and Dana M. Nestrick (stage manager), does an amazing job of enhancing an already powerful script and showcasing as Joe says: “human intercourse at its sublimely ridiculous.”

 

Highly recommended

 

American Blues Theater’s The Columnist runs through April 1, 2017, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are available in online at americanbluestheater.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 24 February 2017 12:23

Review: Uncle Vanya at Goodman Theatre

In 2010, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director adapted "The Seagull" by Chekhov. An all-star cast, a stellar script and unique staging made for a memorable production. For this season, Robert Falls returns Chekhov to the Goodman with a new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya" by Annie Baker. This production of "Uncle Vanya" could be seen as a companion piece to 2010's "The Seagull." There's a stylistic similarity and another all-star cast breathing new life into this classic work. 

 

Like any Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya" is about the everyday boredom and sadness of bourgeois Russians living on a country estate. Vanya (Tim Hopper) and niece Sonya (Caroline Neff) have toiled away their youths keeping the estate afloat and subsidizing the academic career of Sonya's aging father Alexander (David Darlow). When Alexander and his much younger wife Yelena (Kristen Bush) decide to move in with Vanya, their simple lives reach confrontation. 

 

Chekhov has a knack for dynamic female characters. "Uncle Vanya" is no exception. Caroline Neff's performance as Sonya sneakily becomes the focal point. Neff infuses Baker's already modern dialogue with an almost tangible sense of emotion.  Playing off her in the role of Yelena is Kristin Bush. This character is complicated and cold but Bush deftly shifts between moods without ever losing her audience. 

 

Adapter Annie Baker won the Pulitzer in 2014 for her play "The Flick." Her interpretation of "Uncle Vanya" was based on a literal word-for-word translation as she wanted her version to sound as fresh to a modern American audience as the original Russian had in 1900. To that end, Baker is successful. The script is quiet, but the dialogue seamlessly flows into our century. There's a timelessness to the entire production. Certain conventions, costumes and set pieces span generations, yet are of no specific historic era.  This stylistic choice only reinforces the ever-relevant themes of Chekhov's complex works. 

 

"Uncle Vanya" can neither be described as a comedy or a drama. There are moments of lightness and even dark humor, but overall the play is not particularly funny. On the other hand, while there's a well of unhappiness just beneath the surface, nothing truly cataclysmic happens. In the end, Chekhov makes his nihilistic point that perhaps none of us are happy and that death is the only respite we'll know. 

 

Through March 19th at Goodman Theatre. 170 N Dearborn St. 312-443-3800

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Page 1 of 19

 

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