Dance in Review

John Accrocco

John Accrocco

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

With Jaws having just swam back into theaters for its fortieth anniversary and recent shark attacks in North Carolina, The Ruckus' world premiere of 'Matawan' comes at a perfect time. Playwright Dan Caffrey set out to write a play that captures the time period of the early 1900s, an era he always felt was glossed over in school. This new work tells the story of a small New England town dealing with a killer shark. Sound familiar? The 1916 great white shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey were the basis for Peter Benchly's novel Jaws. Until 1916 very little was known about sharks and most people believed they did not attack bathers.

At it's core 'Matawan' is less a play about a man-eating shark and more about fear. Even the shark has a fear-soaked narrative throughout the show. The large cast of characters and well-written vignettes all deal with anxieties concerning war, globalization, disease and life happiness. For the first time in history, Americans were economically comfortable enough to have the luxury to look outside themselves and Caffrey captures this ever-relevant sense of impending doom that seems to consume most people today too.

One might wonder how it's possible to depict a shark attack on stage. Director Allison Shoemaker makes really bold choices with her production. Instead of gruesome displays of blood and guts, Shoemaker's attacks are almost sexual in nature. In fact, the entire production is so very craftily done. Actors play instruments to simulate sound effects and the result is genuinly creepy.

Caffrey delivers a truly unique script. The subject matter poses some obvious logistical problems but the creative team at The Ruckus show they're more than capable of taking on this challenge. Not only was the production insightful but also exceedingly well acted. How often can a shark make you misty? (John J Accrocco)

Through July 26th at The Athenaeum Theatre. 2963 N Southport Ave. 773-935-6860

Saturday, 13 June 2015 00:00

Review: Abraham Lincoln Was A F*gg*t

What do Michael Jackson and Abraham Lincoln have in common? Playwright Bixby Elliot explores the parallels between the sixteenth president, the king of pop and the landscape for LGBT youth in his new play “Abraham Lincoln was a Faggot” at About Face Theatre.

Elliot’s play follows two intertwining narratives in an attempt to answer the eternal question: was Abraham Lincoln gay? In the present, there is Cal (Matt Farabee), a high schooler coming to terms with his sexuality while trying to prove Lincoln’s orientation. In the past, there is the supposed story of Lincoln’s homosexual love affairs. In between are Cal’s terrified mother (Jessie Fisher) and uncle (Nathan Hosner) who must traverse the uneasy waters of an older generation’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Director Andrew Volkoff brings together a well-equipped cast for this show. Dana Black’s clowning as narrator, historian and Ellen Degeneres will likely be most remembered. She accents and punctuates nearly every scene and it brings a much needed sense of lightness. Jessie Fisher in a duel role as both Mary Todd Lincoln and Cal’s mother balances  eccentricity and subtlety.

Bixby’s script, even if at times extraneous, has a lot of heart and makes a lot of great points about our media obsessed culture. At first the Michael Jackson musical numbers and background tracks seem strangely out of place, but as the show continues the script points to two lives lived under grueling American scrutiny. The author writes from a much more closeted generation than our current times, but still the struggle to live a life that is true to oneself is the ultimate argument. This essential human necessity transcends race, gender, class and sexuality. The script is well-structured and under Volkoff’s direction, has a real sense of emotional authenticity that could be lost in such an inventive concept.

Through July 5th. At the Green House Theatre Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 773-404-7336

Saturday, 30 May 2015 00:00

Review: Sideshow Theatre's "Chalk"

Known for staging eccentric new works, Sideshow Theatre’s production of Walt McGough’s “Chalk” is no exception. McGough serves as the literary manager for Sideshow Theatre and his play is receiving its world premiere in collaboration with Boston’s Fresh Ink Productions.

Peculiar is perhaps the best adjective to describe “Chalk.” Clocking in at just one hour, “Chalk” tells the tale of a woman (Kathleen Akerley) living in a post-apocalyptic world with her daughter (Nina O’Keefe). When her daughter returns with supplies, she notices her behavior is unusual. The story quickly devolves into an episode of “Twilight Zone.” While McGough’s script does an interesting thing in that it tries to humanize a typical horror/sci-fi story, the premise itself is weak. In such a short play, he never grounds the characters in any context. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but the lack of meat doesn’t satisfy the audience. In the end, despite McGough’s efforts, the play is a bit plot-heavy.

Director Meghan A. Smith has paired two really talented actresses together for “Chalk.” Nina O’Keefe is hilarious and her physicality is fun to watch. She brings a much needed intensity to the part. Kathleen Akerley gives a rich performance, often adding what’s not on the page with gesture and body language. She has a sense of the script, and it’s easy to trust her certainty in the dialog.

"Chalk" doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It does what a play should - tells an interesting story with a beginning, middle, and the conclusion is satisfying as plays should be. The deeper moments are good, but overshadowed.

Through June 28th at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 00:00

Review: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

What a thrill to see a costume piece with moderately contemporary dialog. Charles Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" premiered during the height of theatrical decedance in the 1980s. Razor sharp wit borrowed from Laclos' 18th century epistolary novel about sexual conquest among bored aristocrats make this an extremely titillating and provocative piece. Just reading the text is tickling enough. The play garnered critical praise on Broadway, and was followed by an even more successful film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

AshtonRep bites off a bit more than they can chew with their current production at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater. The problem with this production is casting. The role of the conniving Marquise de Merteuil is played with cool dignity by Sarah Pavlak McGuire, her composed cruelty is fascinating to watch. Unbalanced co-star and AshtonRep founder Robert Tobin takes up the role of Valmont. It's imperative that Valmont be a suave casanova, one who ebbs sex appeal. Tobin is neither. He also tends to misplace the dialog. He often delivers his lines with a confusing modern inflection on purposefully crafted antiquated phrasing.

Director Charlie Marie McGrath makes an interesting choice by changing the time period from pre-revolutionary France to pre-revolutionary Russia. Though, for what reason? Hampton's script leaves the audience with a powerful image conjured by projecting the silhouette of a guillotine on the background. It feels like a missed opportunity not to give this play the full depth it needs. The staging is well-conceived, running with the idea of a chamber drama, having the curtains drawn to accent scenes like storybook chapters.

All in all, AshtonRep presents a faithful production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It's an ambitious play for an emerging theatre company to take on, but there is a great deal of chemistry between the female ensemble here. Hampton's script is sturdy and holds up well in an era in which most people are more familiar with the teenage re-telling "Cruel Intentions."

Through June 21st. The West Stage at Raven Theatre Complex. 6157 N Clark St. 773-828-9129

Saturday, 16 May 2015 00:00

Review: Inana at Timeline Theatre

About a month ago, CNN began running a series of clips showing self-proclaimed Islamic State militants destroying Middle Eastern artifacts. While their motives remain unclear, it does point to an unsettling idea that significant pieces of history are lost or destroyed in times of civil unrest.

Michele Lowe’s 2009 play ‘Inana’ makes its Midwestern premiere at TimeLine Theatre. ‘Inana’ centers itself around an Iraqi museum curator Yasin (Demetrios Troy) and his recent bride Shali (Atra Asdou). Yasin is in love with a statue named Inana and fears that with the impending U.S. Invasion of Baghdad, she will end up in the wrong hands. His fanatic obsession leads him to an arranged marriage with Shali, who despite her servile disposition is smarter than she seems.

Director Kimberly Senior arranges her stage in a way that compliments Lowe’s non-linear script. While the present-tense action of the play takes place in a London hotel room – a series of past events are revealed in vignettes that lead us to a final revelation.

TimeLine has assembled a talented cast of Chicago actors, but it’s really Atra Asdou in the role of Shali on which this show hinges. Asdou is a gifted reactionary actress, every little offense Yasin commits registers on her face, and a single tear hangs in her eyes throughout the show. In many aspects Asdou and Troy’s interaction begins as a comedy of errors, but ends a bittersweet love story. Some explosive dialogue builds in between and the chemistry is thrilling.

The political slant in Lowe’s 90-minute play preaches to a choir whose opinion is now the majority in the U.S. “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” is widely regarded as a debacle these days. This play goes back in time to show us a view from the other side of the lines. We sympathize with a people who knew no other world than Saddam’s regime, people who were actually content with what was. Considering today’s disturbing post-war Middle Eastern climate; a crumbled Syria, and the volatile Iraqi infrastructure, it’s hard not to see the parallels between a sacred statue being guarded from corrupt hands and that of a region destroyed by global machismo.

Through July 26th at TimeLine Theatre – 615 W Wellington Ave. 773-281-8463

When a play is produced as often as “Doubt,” each theatre company must ask of itself, why now? What can our company give to this work that another has missed? Over the past decade or so, it’s becoming nearly impossible to open a newspaper and not read a headline about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This play is endlessly topical, but can a play lose its punch if it’s overly produced? In Chicago alone we’ve seen several noteworthy companies take on “Doubt” and Writer’s Theatre is no exception.

Director William Brown has a unique vision for John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and it’s remarkably effective in distinguishing this production. Staged in the Glencoe Union Church, this marks the first occasion Writer’s has done a site-specific engagement. It seems borderline blasphemous, but at the same time there’s nothing in the script that either supports or condemns organized religion. The highly atmospheric quality created by Brown even serves to underscore the authority of Sister Aloysius.

That said, Karen Jane Woditsch’s performance as the aggressive school principal is downright scary. Woditsch’s sharp features are constantly at work. There’s a contemplative, calculating look in her eyes throughout the show. It’s as if she sees right through you, just like she instructs naïve teacher, Sister James (Eliza Stoughton) to do. Her intensity in movement and severity in diction are on an entirely different level than the rest of the cast.

There’s a degree of ambiguity in Shanley’s text. Is Father Flynn guilty? It’s a choice the director and the actors must make. Without an actor’s certainty the role comes off as weak. Steve Haggard’s Father Flynn is very convincing, a fascinating choice considering so often Flynn’s character comes off as guilty from the get-go.

The well-being of a child is the central conflict in this briskly-paced work. The problem is the inherent coldness in this play. It’s beautifully worded, but highly mathematical in its structure. It’s too easy to be swayed by Sister Aloysius. Sister James exclaims that the school is run like a prison, and she’s right. It’s a different kind of child abuse. Given all the headlines and the tendency to be drawn to the salacious, it’s easy to overlook the lasting effects of educational system without warmth and life without grey area.

Through July 19th. Writer’s Theatre at Glencoe Union Church – 263 Park Avenue. 847-242-6000

It may be surprising to few that the story of Chicago Public Housing is not a happy one. When we think of the “projects” many of us can only think of the harsh setting in the film “Candyman” or an NWA music video. Not an actual place where families thrive and children experience firsts. Younger Chicago residents strolling the now safe streets of Old Town would find it hard to believe it was once the Cabrini-Green housing projects.

PJ Paparelli’s documentary-style play “The Project(s)” makes its premiere at American Theater Company where he is the artistic director. Paperelli’s unflinching look at the rise and literal fall of the Chicago Housing Association’s projects was a five year endeavor, collecting oral histories from real-life residents. Along with co-writer Joshua Jaeger, Paparelli delivers a well-researched and well-structured documentary about urban living with obvious parallels to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. A talented ensemble of African American actors give a certain levity to this piece through humor and stirring choreography by Jakari Sherman.

“The Project(s)” tells the troubled story of American Public Housing from its inception, to its bright beginnings and finally to its tragic dissolution in the late 1990s. The script is composed of an array of voices that don’t just bemoan the struggles of the working poor, but also romanticize a long-gone sense of community. The ensemble seamlessly moves in and out of mostly nameless characters that become familiar and endearing.

For many theatre-goers, life in the projects is a foreign world. Just as the tragic headlines of South Side violence may only be static for a Lincoln Park homeowner who doesn’t see shootings on their block. “The Project(s)” forces audiences to confront the everyday aggressions of an oppressed community. It also throws gentrification in the face of its supporters. Too often we hear people casually debate, “Gentrification isn’t that bad – it’s a good thing, it helps people.” Paparelli’s script begs to differ. It lends a voice and a face to the droves of people displaced when developers turn neighborhoods.

Through May 24th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125

Friday, 24 April 2015 00:00

Review: The Hypocrites' "Three Sisters

"Maybe it's the wanting we want" muses Vershinin in The Hypocrites' version of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters'. At once this new adaptation by Geoff Button (who also directs) is contemporary and charming. Button seems to run with them theme of supressed desires in his production that feels ever-relevant in our #FOMO world (fear of missing out).

If it's only the wanting we want, will we ever be content with what we get? Chekhov leans towards no. Perhaps disappointment is all those who dream are ever rewarded with because they refuse to live in the present. These three sisters seem to have a lot depending on their future in Moscow. As an audience we see that they make no strategic moves to achieve their dreams, which makes their longing all that much more pathetic.

Sadness is personified in color by set designer William Boles. In the first opulent scene, the set is heavily accented with purples and pinks, but when Natasha (Erin Barlow) enters the picture, her love of green brings sadness with it. In each scene as Andrei (Joel Ewing) loses a little more of their estate, a purple accent is pulled away. By the end of the play the stage is washed in green.

While the dialogue of this play is pretty morbid, forcing its audience to confront the delusions we tells ourselves in order to keep living, somehow the cast makes it a lot of fun. There's great deal of chemistry. That's not to say that the punches don't come when necessary, they're even subtle. Mary Williamson's Olga is strong, but it's really Masha (Lindsey Gravel) and Irina's (Hilary Williams) play.

Hilary Williams' outburst at the top of the second act is when the play takes a decidedly darker direction. She has a panic attack, instead of a melodramatic tantrum. Applying a diagnosable pyscological condition to this fragile character is much more convincing than most women are portrayed in literature during this period. It says more about gender inequality and Irina's anxieties than just dismissable female hysteria.

Lindsey Gravel's Masha is a real surprise here. She's sneaky, and likeable in her moodiness. By the middle of the play, her character's future is the only one that seems certain. Costume designer Jeremy W. Floyd does a wise thing by having her Fyoder (D'Wayne Taylor) hand her a green coat. It's a symbol that shows the rest of her life is going to be miserable, but what choice does she have?

Hypocrites' "Three Sisters" is the perfect production for those who fear the classics. For purists it may seem shallow, but really, who wants to sit through three long hours of people complaining? The translation is accessible and the emotions are real. The aesthetic is unique and fresh, without having to modernize it. It's important for this play to remain in a time period in which women were still considered second class citizens. Without these restrictions, we'd be wondering why the heck they don't just move to Moscow and stop whining already?

Through June 6th at Hypocrites Theatre. 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-398-7028. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015 00:00

Review: Between You, Me and the Lampshade

As Chekov supposedly once said, if you bring a gun out in act one, it better go off by act three. Raul Castillo’s new play for Teatro Vista, ‘Between You, Me and the Lampshade’ goes for a metaphoric interpretation of the old rule.

The play starts off with a rush of adrenaline as a mysteriously battered young woman (Aysette Munoz) breaks into the trailer home of Jesse (Sandra Marquez). Jesse stands armed with a rifle, and from there a riveting dialog about race, immigration and love unfolds over 90 minutes.

Castillo’s play is largely plot-driven in an old school kinda way, but he raises it from the pot-boiler genre with the poetic yearnings of a Mexican couple stuck between two countries and on the run from border patrol. Castillo also goes on to comment on the inter-minority caste system. Jesse though Latina, denies her home intruder from calling her senorita or speaking Spanish. She even goes on to use racial slurs. The characters’ use of the vernacular and a plethora of double-negatives subtly provide a very realistic atmosphere of life in southern Texas.

The play isn’t without its lightness. A touching scene between Jesse’s teenage son Woody (Tommy Rivera-Vega) and his gamer, cyber pal K-Ten (Bryce Gangel) hits on issues of loneliness and the feeling of being misunderstood even in a place where everyone speaks the same language. When the cyber pal actually shows up in real life, a romantic current emerges.

The cast works well together under the direction of Ricardo Gutierrez. Bryce Gangel’s self-involved and blissfully unaware character brings with her most of the show’s comedy.  Sandra Marquez is very sure of herself in the role of a flailing mother and reluctant aid, with authentic reactions that are at times abrasive, which is to say very human. Ayssette Munoz as a woman on the run makes careful choices, without veering into melodrama. While this is not yet a perfect play, Raul Castillo’s undoubtedly a talented playwright with the foundation of a provocative play that calls for immigration reform. 

Through May 10th - Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000

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