Dance in Review

John Accrocco

John Accrocco

Tuesday, 23 February 2016 17:12

Review: The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre

It's hard to make popcorn look unappetizing, but "The Flick" succeeds. Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize winning play, begs the question, are you actually friends with the people you work with? Under the direction of Dexter Bullard, The Steppenwolf Theatre confronts this challenging new play. 


The play begins in the dark with a grand overture like in the epic films of yore. The Flick is a rundown, single showing room, movie theater in a small New England town. When twenty-year-old Avery takes a job at The Flick, he unknowingly disrupts the dynamic between the lifer employees: Sam and Rose. Avery is a young man struggling with depression. In almost annoyingly repetitive scenes steeped in film trivia, he opens up to his co-workers who he hopes are his friends. 


With the prevalence of multiplexes, independent movie houses have been forced to retire 35 mm film in favor of digital projectors. Instead of the bulky reels, movie theaters are basically just pushing play on a DVD. Avery is appalled at the idea of digital film and the future of the art form. Baker argues an intriguing point about the future of movies and in a way, the future of the world.


Baker also seems intimately familiar with the struggles of working class America. She's careful not to satirize it, or let her characters off too easy. The most bittersweet moments of her lengthy script occur while the characters perform menial tasks. There's a great deal of comfort in consistency, and it's in these long hours that people reach out to whoever is around them. Often the working world is disappointing, and there's really nothing more depressing than listening to someone complain about work. "The Flick" asks if we're more loyal to our paychecks than our co-workers. 


Like "Gone with the Wind" this play takes a great deal of patience. The plot slowly unfolds in scenes lengthened by silence. While some may find this pacing difficult, it's in the stilted lines and long pauses that the emotional honesty of this script lives. Baker spends a lot of time exploring her character's life philosophies. 


Performances are strong in this small cast. Caroline Neff as the alt-chic Rose is hilarious and heartbreaking. Danny McCarthy as middle-aged Sam, plays the everyman with such likable charm, that the nihilist ending sneaks up on you. "The Flick" is a play you'll spend a lot of time with both in and out of the theater.  

American Theater Company starts the year with a world premiere by author Dan LeFranc, directed by Joanie Schultz. "Bruise Easy" is a modern day retelling of Electra, set in the seemingly vapid world of southern California. 


When Tess (Kelly O'Sullivan) returns to her childhood home to find her estranged brother Alec (Matt Farabee) smoking weed on the driveway, she's mortified. In a series of somewhat unanswered questions, we're given a glimpse into a family torn apart by imperfect parents. Scenes are punctuated by a group of masked "neighborhood kids" who serve as the Greek chorus. With a short running time of 85 minutes, stand-up Tess and screw-up Alec trade barbs and acts of uncomfortable sexual tension. 


LeFranc's script is troubled though. While the gimmick of the Greek chorus is at first interesting, it ends up becoming a major distraction and overall pretty useless as a storytelling device. The author tries to communicate his heavy-handed message about suburban ambitions through this technique, which instead should be more apparent in the dialogue between Tess and Alec. 


"Bruise Easy" is missing a lot of crucial pieces and leaves viewers without any specific answers. LeFranc fails to develop his characters' narratives, which is a shame because O'Sullivan and Farabee are both really riveting performers to watch. 


The dialogue never quite gives us what we want. What happened to their mother? Why is Tess even there? What's the deal with the house? Why can't they go in? Instead, a lot of emphasis is placed on reminding us that it's 2005. Unfortunately many of the ways we're reminded come off as forced. Putting audiences in a certain time period involves more than dated pop culture references. 


LeFranc would certainly benefit from either adding more to the script or subtracting the elements that don't work, and clarifying the hazy details. There's just too much dead air here. It's apparent the author knows a lot more about these characters than he's letting on. He seems more concerned with the idea that it's a Greek tragedy set in California than he is the actual lives of the characters. 


Director Joanie Schultz's vision for this show also tends to stand in the way. There's an MTV circa-1995 aesthetic that really doesn't match the tone of the script. "Bruise Easy" has an anti-establishment theme running through it, but it's not as cheeky as the interlude graphics and pop music wants it to be. There's a lot going on here, and narrowing what exactly LeFranc wants his audience to leave with will benefit this play in subsequent productions. 


Through February 14th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 


Monday, 07 December 2015 21:26

Review: Redtwist's "Incident at Vichy"

In a cramped police station in Southern France, a handful of men argue about why they were picked up for questioning. During the Nazi occupation of France in WWII, Germany left Vichy to be governed by France. This didn't exempt the zone from mass deportation of Jews living on false papers. Arthur Miller's "Incident at Vichy" explores the dark themes of a region living in fear, holding a mirror up to our own time.


With direction by Ian Frank, Redtwist gives a faithful production of Miller's under-produced 1964 one-act. Redtwist's best asset from show to show is the intimacy of their performance space. For a claustrophobic play like this, a better space couldn't be found. There are almost as many cast members as audience members and when the room is full, there's an inherent sense of panic.


White men arguing is pretty often seen in mid-century theatre. Usually it's a vehicle for expressing the playwright's world views. "Incident at Vichy" is a play of its time period. That's not to say Arthur Miller's words aren't chillingly relevant. As each character in question slowly divulges the reasons they may be sent away, they prioritize their own right to life over their neighbor's. In those passionate monologues, Miller cuts right to the heart of human nature, which is sometimes primal.


With a large cast and a short play, it's unusual to have so much character development. The ensemble distinguishes themselves well. The play hangs on a stand-out performance by Jeremy Trager as Von Berg (an Austrian nobleman). His character is the only one who seems to express empathy and guilt about what's happening to the people around him. David Giannini and Tim Parker balance out the cast as Bayard and Leduc and turn in strong performances as well.


"Incident at Vichy" is a story of people living in fear. It's a cautionary tale of what can happen when people are apathetic. With all this history, it's shocking in America that some would-be politicians are touting mass deportations of minority groups. To that end, Miller's play has never been more essential.


Through January 10th at Redtwist Theatre. 1044 W Bryn Mawr. 773-728-75329



Everyone's mom has a copy of "Tapestry," and by now the songs are almost as familiar as the Star Bangled Banner. What many may not know is that composer Carole King and lyricist Gerry Goffin literally shaped the sound of early rock 'n roll with their songs made popular by The Drifters, The Shirelles and Little Eva. 


"Beautiful" is a musical based on Carole King's incredible rise in the music business as a teenager. While the show is a fairly succinct tale, it does neglect that Miss King ran in the same circles as many other music heavy weights such as Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. Impressive even still is that she sold her first hit song when she was sixteen years old. In an age when many careers were off limits to women. 


Douglas McGrath's book is charming and witty. It begins with Carole (Abby Mueller) playing "So Far Away," at a piano, her long frizzy hair moves along with King's signature playing mannerisms. From there it revolves back in time to a less sure of herself King, telling her story through her own songs. McGrath's book has a sincerity not often found these days in blockbuster Broadway shows. He provides heartbreaking context for all the well-known hits written by not just King and Goffin, but also their close friends and competition, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. 


The numbers are somewhat formulaic in their presentation, moving from real life story to full-scale performances (as they would have appeared on American Band Stand) but the songs are incredibly well sung and choreographed by the ensemble. It's nearly impossible not to sing along under your breath, or in full-voice as some audience members were. Mcgrath and director Marc Bruni have struck a perfect balance that both tickles and leaves the audience feeling an emotional attachment to the characters, so that in the end, "Beautiful" isn't just about Carole King and it's also not just about the music industry. 


Local actress Abby Mueller does an impeccable job filling the shoes of Carole King. If you close your eyes, you wouldn't know you're not actually listening to "Tapestry." Mueller's performance pushes past the gimmick of imitation. She connects to the audience and makes the familiar story of a bad marriage very real. When she turns from frumpy housewife into the bohemian California-chic (the Tapestry look) it feels very cathartic, which makes her success as a solo singer all the more triumphant. 


Through February 21st at The Oriental Theatre. Broadway in Chicago. 800-775-2000


Thursday, 19 November 2015 21:15

Review: Fulfillment at American Theatre Company

Sex sells as the old adage goes. It may be marketable, but you have to ask yourself what it has to say. Likely sex will dominate the discussion among patrons of Thomas Bradshaw's new play at American Theater Company. With bold direction by Ethan McSweeney, Fulfillment will undoubtedly ruffle some subscriber feathers. 


The play begins with Michael (Stephen Conrad Moore) purchasing a multi-million dollar apartment in Soho and describing his sexual relationship with his coworker, Sarah (Erin Barlow). She soon puts the idea in his head that he isn't being made partner at the law firm because of his race. Whether it's true or not becomes subject to interpretation as the rest of Michael's life begins to spiral out of control. 


Bradshaw's script is flawed in that it's not enough about any one thing to really grasp at a central narrative or question. If it's a play about the inequality of underrepresented groups (African Americans and women) it never really connects the dots in the way that say, Disgraced does. If it's a play about American desire for more and more, why isn't the main character greedier? 


The scenes are too copious and too short to get down to anything significant. In fact, there's never really any rational conflict between characters, or at least none that lead to anything consequential. More often it's a story about a man who has trouble with his neighbor and the occasional drinking binge. The unfortunate part is that the dialog is actually really strong and incredibly well-acted, but in the end, it doesn't really add up to much. 


Perhaps even more distracting are the numerous instances of gratuitous stage sex and full frontal nudity that cross the line of good taste. It seems to be an overused, if not unnecessary, gimmick on which this play too heavily relies. Maybe if the material was edgy enough to justify the graphic content, it would seem more vital. Mostly it just comes off as a desperate attempt to shock audiences. 


Through December 13th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 





Wednesday, 18 November 2015 21:03

Review: Never the Sinner at Victory Gardens

Apparently thrill-killing isn't a new sign of the gradual breakdown of society. John Logan's historical thriller "Never the Sinner" explores the trial of wealthy, local killers Leopold and Loeb in what was once hailed as the crime of the century. Director Gary Griffin brings this story to life in an exciting new production at Victory Gardens Theater. 


Logan's wordy script has the potential to be really dull, even with the gory details. That's not the case with this quick-moving production. Set against a minimal set draped in peacock damask, Griffin's staging makes the telling active. Each twist and turn in the tabloid drama is accented by slick reporters. The cheeky headlines pose the question whether there's profit in crime? And if so, who benefits from a court room sideshow? Certainly not the victim. It also serves to underscore that in America, we're all just rubber-neckers happy that a crime didn't happen to us. 


A play like "Never the Sinner" is really only as strong as its Leopold and Loeb and luckily they’ve got two great actors. Japhet Balaban plays the part of introverted Nathan Leopold and he's unnervingly creepy. His attention to diction is a wise character choice. While Loeb technically carried out the crimes, Balaban's Leopold has the Norman Bates-type aloofness that most serial killers tend to possess. Jordan Brodess' Loeb balances the rage and panache which likely serves Logan's point that some people will sink to deplorable depths for fame in America. 


The true surprise of this story is their country lawyer Darrow played Keith Kupferer. Kupferer is known for his "every man" roles, and this show will prove a high point for him. Of course the knee-jerk reaction to brutal murder committed by two remorseless college boys makes us demand the ultimate penalty: death. Logan uses this real-life instance to debate the ethics of the death penalty. In high profile cases up to this point in history, rarely was the philosophy of capital punishment ever questioned. Even in our times it’s a hard question without an easy answer. Ultimately Logan uses this shlockey murder trial to ask the audience, is killing in the name of justice, just? 


Through December 6th at Victory Gardens Theater - 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 




Wednesday, 07 October 2015 11:46

Marvin's Room at Theatre Wit in Chicago

What would you do if a stranger asked you for something as simple as a bone marrow transplant? What would you do if someone gave you a life shattering diagnosis? The appropriate reaction seems obvious but as many things in reality are, it's always more complicated.

"Marvin's Room" is the story of Bessie (Linda Reiter), who cares for her near-death father and feeble aunt (Deanna Dunagan). When she's diagnosed with leukemia she has to reach out to her estranged sister Lee (Rebecca Jordan) in hopes of a bone marrow transplant. Lee is dealing with her own struggles with oldest son Hank (Nate Santana) but makes the trip from Ohio to Florida for the tests.

(left to right) Nate Santana, Kyle Klein II, Rebecca Jordan, Linda Reiter and Deanna Dunagan in Shattered Globe Theatre’s 25 anniversary production of MARVIN’S ROOM by Scott McPherson, directed by Sandy Shinner. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Under the direction of Sandy Shinner, Shattered Globe presents a very faithful revival. Never once does it devolve into melodrama. In fact, it's as if Shinner has hunted out the moments of lightness and heightened them to overshadow the darker moments. Linda Reiter's performance as Bessie is exceptionally relatable. Rebecca Jordan, though usually providing the comic relief, is impenetrable enough to support the bittersweet ending. Deanna Dunagan as simple-minded Aunt Ruth is endlessly charming. This play is fairly grounded in a 1990s sitcom style humor. Though the themes are ever-relevant, it is almost thirty years old and now somewhat of a period piece. Set designer Nick Mozak embraces the aesthetic. 

Scott McPherson's modern classic "Marvin's Room" has a rich legacy in Chicago. McPherson was a Chicago actor and writer and the Goodman gave this play its world premiere in 1990. Unfortunately McPherson died of AIDS related complications before he could enjoy the success of his work. He wrote "Marvin's Room" in response to the cyclical care-taking his community was experiencing in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

"Marvin's Room" is not a tragedy. Despite its unpleasant subject matter, it's more about the quality of love in a life rather than the quantity of years. Bessie is a giver and in that, a receiver of love. Lee is a taker, and has a hard time expressing love. Somewhere in between Bessie has to make peace with the fear of disappointing her loved ones and Lee has to learn to show love. (John J Accrocco)

At Theatre Wit through November 14th. 1229 W Belmont Ave. (773) 975-8150

What can be said about a play as often produced as 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' With every company that takes on this landmark play, a new audience is given the opportunity to spend an electrifying evening with George and Martha. As legend has it, Mr. Albee is quite stringent about his work and demands absolute faithfulness to his scripts for fear of being shut down.


It would be impossible not to consider the Steppenwolf's 2010 Tony Award winning revival of 'Virginia Woolf' when discussing Chicago's relationship with this play. Any theatre company producing this play will rightfully have some serious competition. Though, under Jason Gerace's direction at Redtwist Theatre, you wouldn’t know it.


What Gerace and Redtwist have in their favor is an intimate performance space. For nearly three hours the audience sits among the living room furniture at George and Martha's. When the drinks slosh and the one-liners fly, it’s the audience who must shift to avoid getting hit. To that end, this highly atmospheric production feels more alive and certainly more first-hand. This is not an easy script to decipher, each line is almost a world onto itself, and it can be easy to zone out in the recesses of a large theatre. Here, the dialog seems very navigable, so as the intensity heats up it seems to unfold naturally.


Given the challenge of such intricate language, there's an inherent sense of staginess. Its sense of reality is thereby heightened by exceedingly articulate dialog. Jacqueline Grandt's Martha is just plain mean and the way she slithers through her cutting monologues is almost scary. Though her glimmers of fragility in such subtle gestures as watering eyes and quivering lip are hauntingly tragic. It underscores the character's emotional instability. Brian Parry plays George as the co-dependent husband who has reached his breaking point. The calm timbre of his voice never loses it's comforting sound even as he's putting the finishing touches on Martha and their guests. He's able to play it in the way that these characters get exactly what's coming to them. His triumph is very satisfying.


The parts of Nick and Honey can honestly be what makes or breaks this play. Their characters are largely only there to fuel the fire. Elizabeth Argus is pretty spot-on as Honey. Her look brings to mind Elaine from "The Graduate" and when she's called upon in a moment of dark revelation, she delivers. It's not easy to play fake drunk without coming off as a cartoon character. Argus is very believable as she stumbles through glass after glass of brandy.


Redtwist Theatre has a very competent production on their hands. Grandt and Parry really understand their lines and because of that, both turn in rich performances that quickly cut through the melodrama. The artistic staff at Redtwist has also made this production pleasing to the eye in costume and set design. If you need another night with George and Martha, this is a storefront revival not to be missed.



Through October 11th at Redtwist Theatre. 1044 W Bryn Mawr. 773-728-7529

Friday, 28 August 2015 12:10

Review: The Price at Timeline Theatre

Dorothy Parker once said, "If you want to know what god thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to." Arthur Miller's 'The Price' centers itself around a middle aged couple getting on toward their golden years, but for them, it's not so golden. The horrors of The Great Depression have haunted Victor and Esther for years and now that they’re finally liquidating his father's shabby estate, they see glimmers of financial security.

While Victor has struggled for years, partly by choice and partly out of an obligation to care for his aging father, his brother Walter selfishly pursued wealth and stature. Will a chance meeting with an almost supernatural antique dealer pave the way for a reconciliation?

Timeline Theatre presents 'The Price' in a time much like the one it was originally presented in. While the recession of 2008 clearly didn't hit as hard as '29, the uneasy ripples are still being felt today. Director Louis Contey's intimate production feels fresh and modern. Since this is a lesser known Miller, you won't be coming to it with any high school English class biases.

The small ensemble here works well together. Kymberly Mellen as money-hungry Esther is both aggravatingly pathetic and also heartbreakingly true in a final moment so slight you might miss it. Her character is an interesting commentary on how Miller and popular culture must have felt about wives. Her costar, Bret Tuomi as Victor is good, but often seems disconnected from the character. Perhaps this was a flaw of Miller's script because large swaths of monolog from Roderick Peeples as Walter seem insincere at times too. 91 year old Mike Nussbaum as furniture dealer Solomon is by far the most endearing part of the show. There's a heaven-sent quality to this role which is uncharacteristic of Miller's solidly grounded work. Nussbaum's performance is very charming.

'The Price' at Timeline Theatre is a highly polished, and well designed play that will introduce a new generation to a minor, but no less important Arthur Miller classic. It's a history lesson in privation and a cautionary tale about the unpleasantries money brings to people's lives. It's also powerful story about what it means to choose between love and wealth.

At Timeline Theatre through November 22nd. 615 W Wellington Ave. 773.281.8463

It's not often you see the words erotic and Dachau in the same sentence. Bent by Martin Sherman is one of the few literary works to address homosexuality and the Nazis. Under the direction of Keira Fromm, The Other Theatre Company presents this Pulitzer Prize nominated play as part of their freshman season.

Bent calls to mind many of the same themes and issues raised by Christopher Isherwood in his novel The Berlin Stories, later to inspire the musical Cabaret. What makes these stories so fascinating is the alternative narrative to the well-known story of Hitler's persecution of Jews. What many don't know is that the Nazi regime persecuted gays, gypsies, the handicapped or anyone who was different. Also, that non-Jewish Germans simply went along with the darkening tide, terrified or unaware of its ultimate goal: ethnic cleansing.

Sherman set out to write a play that mirrored his own time, a closeted late 1970s on the cusp of the AIDS epidemic. While there are some glaring historical inaccuracies in this play - he makes his point. Philandering Max (Nik Kourtis) lives both and in and out of the closet as it suits him, until he finds himself imprisoned at Dachau for "perversion." While en route, he befriends fellow "queer" Horst (Alex Weisman) who helps him stay alive. Over the course of their internment at Dachau the two become lovers in uniquely staged sexual encounters.

While the play is quite faithful to its source material, the direction could have been stronger. Weisman is quite sure of himself and turns in a top notch performance as tragic Horst. Kourtis on the other hand stumbles through the emotional peaks and valleys of his anti-heroic character. By now, there are countless literary interpretations of the Holocaust and what this particular production misses is the bewilderment victims of concentration camps must have felt. These characters never seem to step back and address the atrocity and disbelief of the exaggerated instances of cruelty in the script. They're prematurely numb to the horrors of camp life and in the end, the inherent sense fear doesn't translate to the audience in the way many other Holocaust dramas have succeeded. The underlying themes get a little mixed up and you're never sure exactly what The Other Theatre Company would like you to take away.

Through July 26th at The Other Theatre Company. 3829 North Broadway. (773)528-9696

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