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Thursday, 25 May 2017 16:15

Review: "T" at American Theater Company

The 90s really must be back because this is the second show about Tonya Harding and Nancy Karigan to debut in Chicago in the past year. American Theater Company's telling is a new play called "T" by Dan Aibel. "T" is a ninety-minute retelling of the infamous 1994 incident from the perspective of Tonya Harding's family. Margot Bordelon returned to Chicago to direct the conclusion of Will Davis' first as artistic director of American Theater Company.

"T" steers clear of camp and tabloid. What this play is essentially about is how much T, or Tonya Harding was worth to the people around her. In quick-moving scenes, Dan Aibel calculates all the ways in which Tonya Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly could profit from endorsements. In other scenes, we see her only female companion is her coach who's desperate for a win.

There is something a little strange about "T"­--a slightly lyrical tempo to the dialogue. Sentences read like work emails, missing regular parts of speech. It's an interesting choice, but it often puts uncharacteristically poetic words into otherwise simple people's mouths. It takes for granted that most of us are probably too familiar with the particulars of this crime, and therefore breezes through events without much context. There's a lot to cover in this story and while it's brief, it sufficiently wraps up in a single act.

Leah Raidt plays Tonya Harding with fierce intensity. The look is perfect. There's a duality in her interpretation that strongly resembles the real Tonya Harding without resorting to impression. She's endearingly naive but also bullish and brash. Her coach, Joanne is played by Kelli Simpkins. Her performance is like a cross of Tilda Swinton and Jodi Foster. Her scenes are the most captivating. Her character, however flawed, proves to be the moral backbone of the play.

It makes you wonder what the relevance of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan feud is to today. Aibel tries to connect it to the beginning of the digital age, and maybe he's right. It was the last time in history that shlock news didn't go "viral." This story held a nation's attention at the speed of nightly news. Like the OJ Simpson trial, this time will always hold a special place in a certain generation's heart.

At American Theater Company through June 25th. 1909 W Byron St. 60613

Published in Theatre in Review

American Theater Company (ATC) is proud to announce its Season 33, which kicks off this October with the world premiere of Janine Nabers’ Welcome to Jesus, directed by Artistic Director Will Davis, October 26–December 3, 2017. In the New Year, ATC presents Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be Okay, making its Chicago premiere, January 25–March 4, 2018, directed by Davis. The production premiered as part of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. Next spring brings another world premiere to ATC, Carlos Murillo’s Diagram of a Paper Airplane, May 3–June 10, 2018, directed by Bonnie Metzgar. Over the course of the entire season, ATC will host its second Chicago Open Residency Experiment (CORE), a series of week-long residencies for artists of all disciplines.

“At ATC, the artist comes first,” says Davis. “We select seasons of artists and then dialogue with them about the work they need to make and how we can champion it. To us that is the point of the arts institution; we provide a space where artists can interrogate their art and experiment with their work for the good of the American theater. Season 33 is an articulation of those values. As we built the season we've used a phrase I scribbled on the board above my desk as our programming compass. The phrase is: Laugh, Cry, & Hug Your Neighbor. As an institution, we are working on this concept of neighborliness through our support of artists in process, the youth we serve and the work we produce. This year we're presenting two world premieres, a second production and line up of artists in residence that all embrace bold theatricality, questions of identity and interrogations of power and belonging.”

Season subscriptions are on sale now and range from $40-$114, with special pricing available for members under the age of 35. To purchase a subscription or for more information, visit

www.atcweb.org or call the ATC Box Office at 773-409-4125.

ATC remains committed to its partnership with Chicago Inclusion Project, whose work creates inclusive theater experiences that bring together Chicago artists and audiences normally separated by physical ability, gender identity and/or ethnic background. The two companies partner on casting, giving diverse theater artists access to roles they might traditionally have been excluded from. Together with the Chicago Inclusion Project, ATC will continue its commitment to presenting works that boldly reflect the diversity of stories and experiences in America today.

Past world premiere productions at ATC include Stephen Karam’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play The Humans and Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, both of which enjoyed acclaimed Broadway runs. In Season 32 ATC produced the regional premiere of Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men On Boats, immediately following its Off Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons; reimagined classic, Pulitzer Prize winner Picnic by William Inge; and will present Dan Aibel’s world premiere of T., an exploration of the competitive ice skating saga between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, later this month.

AMERICAN THEATER COMPANY’S SEASON 33:

World Premiere

Welcome to Jesus

Written by Janine Nabers

Directed by Will Davis

October 26–December 3, 2017

In fictional Hallelujah, TX, football reigns, and the quarterback is king. Janine Nabers’ darkly funny and powerful new play unearths the tyranny of small town life and the power of prejudice to define our fate. Staged in a field of wood chips, about a town in search of some good news, Welcome to Jesus fuses fable and horror in a twenty-first century take on the Southern Gothic tradition.

Chicago premiere

We’re Gonna Be Okay

Written by Basil Kreimendahl

Directed by Will Davis

January 25–March 4, 2018

In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy addressed the nation, “My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out...But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.” Well, Efran and Leena and Mag and Sul are thinking about doing something. Something big. Straight from Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be Okay confronts the fears of the American middle class as two families wrestle with macrame, female empowerment and a shared property line.

 

World Premiere

Diagram of a Paper Airplane 

Written by Carlos Murillo

Directed by Bonnie Metzgar

May 3–June 10, 2018

Javier C. is dead, and in his wake are fragments and scraps of his magnum opus mailed mysteriously from New Mexico to his group of ex-friends in New York. Called "an absolutely extraordinary achievement from a writer at the height of his powers” by American Theatre Magazine, Carlos Murillo's Diagram of a Paper Airplane is the first in a trilogy of plays that examine the capacity of friendships to withstand the unimaginable. Director Bonnie Metzgar brings life to a night of mourning and celebration that will leave them wondering if Diagram of a Paper Airplane ever existed at all.

SEASON 33 CORE PROJECTS INCLUDE:

Black Like Me

Adapted and directed by Monty Cole

Based on the book by John Howard Griffin

Kissing

Conceived by Abigail Boucher

Co-created by Abigail Boucher and Carolyn Defrin

With Brock Alter

Dig

By Theodore Germaine

Directed by Gina Marie Hayes

With Avi Roque

TBD Project

About Face Theatre

(saliva) things that i like about my partner that are not their mouth or genitals

By Jasmine Jordan and Valerie Gallucci

Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern

Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Based on the novel “Show Boat” by Edna Ferber

Directed by Jess McLeod

Join us for a week of experimenting with the size and scope of this beloved musical.

Any of my Enemies

Molly Brennan (Lead Artist)

Diagram of a Paper Airplane

By Carlos Murillo

Directed by Bonnie Metzgar

As part of their process leading up to production, Metzgar and Murillo will receive a CORE pre-production week to explore a key element(s) of the play.

To The Moon

Written by Beth Kander

Artistic collaborators: Allyce Torres, Amanda Long, Arian Thigpen, Sallee Murphy

La Ronde

A reimagining based on the play by Arthur Schnitzler

Directed by Dani Wieder

Choreography by Andy Slavin

FARMED: The Orwell Radio

A song-setting by Trevor Bachman

Inspired by George Orwell's “Animal Farm”

Soot & Linen

By BrittneyLove Smith

SEASON 33 SUBSCRIPTION AND TICKET INFORMATION: 

The American Membership $114 (available until Jan. 31, 2018)

Includes reserved seating for each production

Early Bird 3-Ticket Membership $90 (before August 31, 2017)

3-Ticket Membership $105 (Sept. 1, 2017-Jan. 31, 2018)

Under-35 3-Ticket Membership $60 (available until Jan. 31, 2018)

Early Bird 2-Ticket Membership $60 (before August 31, 2017)

2-Ticket Membership $70 (Sept. 1, 2017-Jan. 31, 2018)

Under-35 2-Ticket Membership $40 (available until Jan. 31, 2018)

All Memberships allow you to choose your performance dates upon purchase. To purchase a subscription or for more information, please contact the ATC Box Office at 773-409-4125 or visit www.atcweb.org.

ARTIST BIOS:

Will Davis is a director and choreographer focused on physically adventurous new work and old plays in new ways. He is also the newly appointed artistic director of American Theater Company(ATC) where he has implemented a new residency program (CORE-Chicago Open Residency Experiment) supporting new ways of making new plays. Recent projects include: Duat by Daniel Alexander Jones for SohoRep. Evita, re-imagined for the Olney Theatre Center, Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus for ATC, Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, and Playwrights Horizons; Orange Julius by Basil Kreimendahl; Mike Iveson’s Sorry Robot for PS122’s COIL Festival; and two productions of Colossal by Andrew Hinderaker for Mixed Blood Theater and the Olney Theatre Center, for which he won a Helen Hayes award for outstanding direction. Davis has developed, directed and performed his work with New York Theatre Workshop, Clubbed Thumb, the New Museum, the Olney Theatre Center, the Alliance Theatre, the Playwright’s Realm, the Fusebox Festival, New Harmony Project, the Orchard Project, the Ground Floor Residency at Berkeley Rep, Performance Studies International at Stanford University, and the Kennedy Center. He is an alum of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, the NYTW 2050 Directing Fellowship and the BAX (Brooklyn Art Exchange) artist in residence program. He holds a BFA in Theatre Studies from DePaul University and an MFA in Directing from UT Austin. Upcoming projects include Charm by Philip Dawkins at MCC.

Janine Nabers is a native of Houston, Texas and a 2013 graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship at Juilliard and winner of the 2014 Yale Drama Series Prize for her play Serial Black Face. She currently writes for Lifetime’s Unreal and Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce under Marti Noxon. Her play Annie Bosh is Missing premiered in August 2013 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Janine won the 2013 NYFA Playwriting fellowship and was the 2013-2014 AETNA Playwriting Fellow at Hartford Stage, a 2012-2013 New York Theatre Workshop Playwriting Fellow, and Page 73’s 2011 Playwriting Fellow. Janine is working on commissions from Primary Stages, the Alley Theatre, and Hartford Stage. Her new musical Mrs. Hughes was developed as the 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival fellowship musical and was part of the 2013 Yale Institute for Musical Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club’s 7@7 series, and the Theatreworks New Works Now Festival.

Basil Kreimendahlis a resident playwright at New Dramatists. Their plays have won several awards, including the Rella Lossy Playwright Award and a National Science Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Kreimendahl has been commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program, and by Actors Theatre of Louisville for Remix 38 (2014 Humana Festival). We’re Gonna Be Okay had its world premiere at Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival of New Plays in 2017. Their play Orange Julius was developed at the 2012 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and will have its New York premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, in a co-production with P73. Kreimendahl’s plays have also been produced or developed by New York Theatre Workshop, American Theater Company, Victory Gardens Theater, The Lark, La Jolla Playhouse, and Labyrinth Theater Company. They have been a Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellow and a McKnight Fellow, won an Art Meets Activism grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and will be a visiting writer at Williams College in 2017. Kreimendahl’s work has been published by Dramatic Publishing and HowlRound. They received their M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 2013.

Carlos Murillo is a Chicago-based, internationally produced and award winning playwright, director and educator of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. He is a recipient of a 2015 Doris Duke Impact Award for his work in the theatre and received a 2016 Mellon Foundation National Playwright Residency Program grant for a three-year residency at Adventure Stage in Chicago. In 2016 he was selected as one of 37 playwrights commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival for their historic American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. His best known play Dark Play or Stories for Boys premiered at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2007, and has been performed throughout the US, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Lithuania. The play appeared in the anthology New Playwrights: Best New Plays of 2007 (Smith & Kraus). His plays have been seen in New York at Repertorio Español, P73, the NYC Summer Playwrights Festival, En Garde Arts, The Public Theater New Work Now! Festival, and Soho Rep; in Chicago at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Adventure Stage, Collaboraction, Walkabout Theatre, Theatre Seven and The Theatre School of DePaul University; and in Los Angeles at Theatre @ Boston Court, Circle X and Son of Semele. His plays have been commissioned by The Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis, The Goodman, the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Berkeley Rep, South Coast Rep, Steppenwolf, Adventure Stage and the University of Iowa International Writing Program, and developed by The Sundance Theatre Lab, The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, New Dramatists and others. His book The Javier Plays, a trilogy of works including Diagram of a Paper Airplane, A Thick Description of Harry Smith and Your Name Will Follow You Home, was published by 53rd State Press and called “an absolutely extraordinary achievement from a writer at the height of his powers” by American Theatre.

Bonnie Metzgar is a Chicago-based playwright, director, dramaturg and producer. In 2015, Metzgar stepped in as interim Artistic Director of American Theater Company after the death of PJ Paparelli. From 2008-2013, Metzgar served as Artistic Director of About Face Theatre. Recent directing credits include Let Me Down Easy by Anna Deavere Smith starring Usman Ally at American Theater Company, The Secretaries by the Five Lesbian Brothers at About Face and Walk Across America for Mother Earth by Taylor Mac for Red Tape as part of the 2015 Garage Rep at Steppenwolf. Metzgar was invited to develop CJ, a new piece co-created with Jesse Morgan Young for ATC’s 2016 CORE residency program. Her commission for Sideshow Theater’s 2016 Freshness Initiative, Liberty Tree, was given a reading at Victory Gardens last spring. As a member of the Goodman's 2014-15 Playwrights Unit, she wrote 5 More, which was selected for the 2016 Great Plains Theater Conference. Her plays have been finalists for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Festival, and selected for the Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha. In 2013-2014, Metzgar was awarded the Carl Djerassi Fellowship in Playwriting at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Previously, Metzgar produced the 365 Festival with Suzan-Lori Parks and was Associate Producer at the Public Theater where she founded Joe’s Pub. Metzgar is on the National Advisory Committee for Howlround and has taught at a number of universities including Northwestern, University of Chicago, Purdue, DePaul and Brown.

About American Theater Company

American Theater Company (ATC) challenges and inspires its community by exploring stories that ask the question, "What does it mean to be an American?" ATC’s Ensemble includes Patrick Andrews, Kareem Bandealy, Jaime Castañeda, Kelly O’Sullivan, Tyler Ravelson, and Sadieh Rifai.

American Theater Company is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at Prince, the Shubert Foundation, ArtsWork Fund, Lagunitas Breweing Co, Actors’ Equity Foundation,

The Pauls Foundation and Robert & Isabelle Bass Foundation.

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre

It's not often you'll hear cool and the play 'Picnic' in the same sentence, but director Will Davis' new version at American Theater Company is just that. This is William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner as you've never seen it before. For many, 'Picnic' triggers high school boredom flashbacks. When traditionally produced, this play can tend to be a little dry. Not the case here, with unique staging and deconstructed notions of gender, Davis brings Inge's work into our century. 

 

William Inge was himself gay in a time period in which it was not acceptable. The theme of secret desire in 'Picnic' parallel Inge's own struggle with being other in a more straight-laced world. Though the Midwest has certainly changed since the 1950's, much of its close-mindedness still exists and that's what remains relevant about Inge's play. 

 

This is Will Davis' first full season as artistic director of American Theater Company and this production is bound to get noticed. This version of 'Picnic' begins as almost performance art; a woman takes a seat at a piano and the cast enters in the shadows. In look and feel, this production couldn't be more different from the traditional staging. While jarring at first, the cast immediately finds its footing and makes Inge's dialogue come to life. Artful and visually stunning effects are peppered throughout, which make for a memorable experience. 

 

Performances are impressive here. Davis' gender-blind casting forces you to focus not on what a performer looks like but rather how their performance makes you feel. In the role of transient stud Hal, is Molly Brennan. While it's apparent she is female, through costuming and attitude, Brennan delivers Hal with such sincerity, it brings to mind Mary Martin's Peter Pan. Malic White is striking in the role of Madge. White's petite and soft spoken Madge turns preconceived notions about feminine beauty on its head. Spinster school teacher Rosemary is played hilariously by Michael Turrentine whose physicality couldn’t be more spot on. 

 

Classic plays should be analyzed in every time for their relevance. These plays can only stay part of the cannon if they connect to a modern audience. It's important for theater companies to take risks and make bold choices to usher these works into a new millennium. Will Davis' 'Picnic' hints at a fearless future for American Theater Company. 

 

Through April 23 at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

 

Published in Theatre in Review

American Theater Company's  (ATC) regional premiere of Men on Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by artistic director Will Davis, took on the story of the one-arm captain, William Wesley Powell, who was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1869 to map the Green and Colorado rivers of the Grand Canyon.

 

Davis was recently appointed as ATC artistic director and Men on Boats is his first production for the company. He was also responsible for staging the Off Broadway version of the play in 2015.

 

The expedition, the first sanctioned in the American West, consisted of 10 grizzled explorers who set out on four boats, courageously riding through the rivers of the Grand Canyon. However, their varied personalities were almost as difficult to navigate as the terrain.

 

Backhaus' Men on Boats, performed by a genderfluid cast of women and folks otherwise defined, provides an entertaining look this historic journey as well as perhaps providing a statement on just how much American society and the role of women have changed since the 1800's. 

 

The ATC cast includes ATC ensemble member Kelly O'Sullivan (William Dunn) and ATC youth ensemble alumna Lawren Carter (Hall), with Erin Barlow (Frank Goodman), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), Brittney Love Smith (Bradley), Sarai Rodriguez (Seneca Howland), Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell) and Lauren Sivak (Old Shady).

 

A simple yet effective set and props, as well as carefully choreographed movements, provide a heightened sense of action, especially when the explorers tackle the imagined vertical drops in the rivers.

 

Although the cast is really good at selling the quirkiness and reticence of some of the explorers and how those differences lead to small skirmishes among the crews, at times it is not enough to sustain it through the 100-minute performance.

 

Overall Backhaus provides is an interesting and sobering look at how a group of people can risk everything in the name of adventure and discovery. It speaks to the heroism we often bestow on our early American West explorers, their faith and commitment in their own visions yet it also highlights the vulnerabilities, conflicts and contradictions of blind loyalty. For it is only one person, John Wesley Powell, who reaps the actual benefits of their bravery as a team.

 

Recommended

 

Men on Boats is playing at ATC now through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available at the ATC box office or by visiting atcweb.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

"A place where nobody dared to go

The love that we came to know

They call it Xanadu

 

And now, open your eyes and see

What we have made is real

We are in Xanadu

 

A million lights are dancing

And there you are, a shooting star

An everlasting world and you're here with me

Eternally"

 

I want to go to there - and this wonderful cast and crew at American Theater Company took me all the way!

 

I'm not like the other critics who like to tear down the original movie starring Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly and some poor actor who resembled Andy Gibb whose name I can't remember because I never saw him again! Oh yeah, Michael Beck. No, I’m in the minority that LOVED Xanadu when it came out.  

 

To a theater geek like myself who also danced with a dance troupe (in leg warmers) and studied painting and drawing, this is a fantasy love story consisting of an artistic Queen of the Arts, the Demi God, “Kira”, who fulfills her own need to create art while helping the mortal she has fallen in love with, Sonny Malone. Timing is everything as she successfully pulls Sonny out of a suicidal depression just after her arrival to help him achieve his dreams, which was the PERFECT romantic expression of what I dreamed my life would be (minus the roller skates).

 

I saw Xanadu a few years back at The Broadway Playhouse and this production succeeds in every way that one did not. 

 

First of all, the staging thanks to director Lili Anne Brown and scenic design by Arnel Sanciano, place the audience in the round of what appears to be the actual roller rink/empty building where much of the film took place in. The set is complete with a disco ball overhead flooding the room with the lights and sounds of the 80's in a fun and involving way.

 

Then there are the voices - the two leads Kira/Cleo played by Landree Fleming and Sonny Malone played by Jim DeSelm are absolutely dead on GREAT singers. It is refreshing to see the role of Kira played by an actress who has the singing chops to pull off Olivia Newton John's star quality voice and is able to capture the romance of the character that should still be present amidst poking fun of her. 

 

Landree Fleming not only hits the highest high notes, she infuses them with the same "magical” quality that Olivia Newton John delivered and she did it without the aid of a sound booth and full orchestra. Landree is not only super funny in the role, she is a great physical comedienne and got laughs out of every sad little shrug of her shoulders and comically delivered line. This is partially in thanks to her hilarious over-emphasized Aussie accent to make the joke without necessarily making her character into a joke. 

 

Another thing that I LOVED about this production, which really caught the hugely optimistic 1980's message with amazing love songs by ELO like "Strange Magic", "I’m Alive", and John Farrer’s "Magic", is that even though they captured the campiness by casting several of Kira's sister Muses as men, Jim De Selm chose to play the role of Sonny as straight man all the way through, creating a believable romance unlike other productions of Xanadu I’ve seen. When I saw the touring production years ago with the Sonny character played as a flamboyantly gay man who could never realistically fall in love with Kira no matter how beautiful she was, it not only took the flash and jazz out of the great campy gay humor, it also took all of the wonderful jokes and truths about hetero love and flattened them out into a joyless, hopeless mess.

 

Every single muse in this production has their own flair and style, and fantastic singing skills. For example, when Muse Melponene’s (Karla L Beard) very first notes came out of her mouth - I knew we were going to be in for a treat of great singing all around. Hanah Rose Nardone as Muse of Music Euterpe, James Negrud as Muse Terpicore and Daniel Spagnuolo as Thalia are three obviously classically trained, highly skilled dancers who ALSO delivered delicious comedy throughout whether executing a perfect pirouette or any other form of modern dance thrown in to celebrate the 80's.

 

Aaron Holland is also a bright spot in this production. Holland is simply hysterical in his dual roles as white afro-wearing Zeus and as building owner/investor Danny Maguire – and he too, like the rest of this talented cast, delivers vocally. 

 

Samantha C. Jones does a fantastic job with the perfectly period funny, yet still SEXY, campy stylish costuming, designed for many, many quick changes as some of the actors play multiple roles from beginning to end.

 

I could go on and on about the entire cast and the great six-piece live band that is also implemented into the show in a wonderful way.

 

For a highly enjoyable way to spend an evening with good music and heavy bouts of laughter, American Theater Company’s Xanadu would be tough to beat. In the lobby after the show I heard another woman discussing the show excitedly saying, "Girls Night out!!! We are going to all come and see this together!!" 

 

Her comments personify the exact joy and thoughts I was having as I left the theater. This truly musically gifted production is so much fun, so true to the romance and high artistic ideals we all had entering the 1980's, ideals and hopes for a rainbow future of the Arts that were completely squashed throughout the decade. 

 

This uplifting and exuberantly romantic production of Xanadu makes you glad you were alive to experience a simpler time and still come out swinging in support for ALL of the Arts including painting, singing, dancing and humor- a full 36 years later!

 

Perfectly blended with its poking fun at the 80’s, use of catchy music and romantic overtones, I highly recommend Xanadu. In fact, catch it more than once if you can. But do yourself a favor and watch the movie first so that you can truly appreciate its parodic humor.

 

Xanadu is currently being performed at American Theater Company through July. Tickets start at a very reasonable price of $30. For more show information, visit http://www.atcweb.org/.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 14:09

Review: Xanadu at American Theater Company

Last year the Chicago theatre community lost a major piece of its landscape. Longtime American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli died abruptly before solidifying the company's thirty-first season. It's almost ironic that a man responsible for bringing so many uncomfortably topical dramas to the Chicago stage had such a soft spot for "Xanadu." As a tribute to the late Paparelli, ATC concludes their thirty-first season with this campy roller disco musical. 

 

For most, "Xanadu" is among the worst movies ever made. In 1980, still riding high on her "Grease" fame, Olivia Newton John was cast as Zeus' favorite muse sent to Venice Beach, California to help struggling street artist Sonny Malone achieve his destiny of opening a roller disco. The film also featured an aged Gene Kelly. Though the movie was an overwhelming flop, the soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra and John Fahrer was a huge hit. 

 

In 2008, Broadway producers decided to satirize the now cult classic as a stage musical. Initial reviews were favorable and it even had a short engagement in Chicago. Unfortunately, due to the recession, "Xanadu" didn't last long, but is now enjoying great popularity in regional theaters. 

 

Somehow American Theater Company and director Lili-Anne Brown are able to make their "Xanadu" more significant than what's at the surface. There's no shortage of comedic gold in this cast of young faces, but what lingers are the incredible group numbers that fill the intimate garage space. This "Xanadu" has so much life that you can almost forget the source material. In the lead role of Clio, or Kira, is Landree Fleming who takes this role in a sketch comedy direction that turns out to be ripe with goofy humor. Jim DeSelm co-stars as Sonny Malone and is not only nice to look at, but he can really belt. 

 

Lili-Anne Brown's ensemble of sister muses fills out this energetic cast and each provide stand-out performances, even if their character names and motives are somewhat arbitrary. The cast looks like they're having a lot of fun together and it's contagious throughout the 90-minute run-time. Even the band, which in some musicals can seem disconnected, are joining in the fun. "Xanadu" at American Theater Company is a high-octane good time and a really fitting tribute to one of Chicago's most groundbreaking theatre artists. 

 

Through July 17th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125.

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Some people can only see what's right in front of them. Abe Koogler explores this theme in his play "Kill Floor" making its Midwestern debut at American Theater Company. The slaughterhouse is a setting once familiarized by Upton Sinclair in his novel "The Jungle." Koogler is updating this disturbing classic for our modern era. While we'd like to think we've evolved since 1906, perhaps we haven't. Maybe because we can't see the inside of a slaughterhouse, we don't think about how horrible factory farming really is. 

 

"Kill Floor" tells the story of Andy (Audrey Francis) who has been recently released from prison. Rick (Eric Slater) is a foreman at the slaughterhouse and gives Andy a job after taking pity on her. A flirtation develops despite that Eric is married, and it's suggested that Andy won't be promoted off the kill floor unless she sleeps with him. B, or Brendan (Sol Patches) is Andy's fifteen year old son who lives with foster parents. B struggles with a closeted homosexual crush, and the reality that most people ignore what makes them uncomfortable. B is also a vegan, making even it harder for Andy to reconnect with him. 

 

Under the direction of Jonathan Berry, this ensemble cast is killing it. Audrey Francis delivers a heartbreaking performance as a woman trying to reclaim her life. She falters naturally between assertiveness and crushing trauma. There's an emotional honesty in her performance that makes for a rare theater experience. Eric Slater and Sol Patches make for an excellent supporting cast. 

 

Koogler's play makes some intriguing points without browbeating the audience with his message. Particularly the comparison between mass incarceration and meat processing. In a way, we're all like the cattle - blindly following one another through winding tunnels, unsure of what's ahead. There's a certain degree of understanding he expects from his viewers. The script strays away from melodrama, leaving some stories untold and ideas unfinished. What's more human than that? 

 

Through May 1st at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

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. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

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

Published in Theatre Reviews

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