Theatre

In Irish Theatre of Chicago’s newest production “The White Road”, performed at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park, we get exactly what we are hoping for – an intense adventure that pits man against nature at its most vicious form. Based on the true heroics of Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, “The White Road” tells the story of yet another incredible undertaking where all hope lies solely in one’s will to survive.

Setting sail from South Georgia on December 5th, 1914, Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica expedition triumphantly leaves shore aboard The Endurance with a crew of twenty-eight with the intent on crossing the Antarctica continent from one coast to the other by way of the South Pole. Hopes are high and excitement is in the air as the crew embarks on a journey never before accomplished.  

Said Shackleton beforehand, "After the conquest of the South Pole by [Roald] Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under [Robert Falcon] Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeying - the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea". 

As history tells, it was a plight that was never meant to be.

Upon approaching Antarctica they are met with pack ice that surrounds their sea vessel threatening to sink it. Completely alone and hundreds of miles away from any form of civilization, this is where one of the greatest tales of survival begins.  

In the two-hour-plus play, we meet a variety of characters that make up this memorable crew – and we like them all. From a nature photographer who keeps the camera rolling at all costs to life and limb, to an enthusiastic stowaway boy starved for adventure, to a whaler/banjo-plucker who lifts the men's spirits with song, we don’t just see a nameless crew, instead we really get to know a unique and diverse lot of individuals. Piven ensemble member Paul Dunckel’s performance of the fearless expedition leader makes Shackleton highly likeable, as the wise and self-sacrificing explorer. Dunckel leads this talented cast with the constitution and perseverance one would associate with an expedition leader, whereas he can convincingly make the tough decisions whilst his loyal troops still rally behind him.

Along with Dunckel, Irish Theatre Company ensemble members Kevin Theis and Matthew Isler are accompanied by Nicholas Bailey, Steve Herson, Neal Starbird, Michael McKeogh, Joseph Stearns, Stephen Walker and Gage Wallace, comprising this fine cast that generates a whirlwind of strong performances.   

Making this play even more entertaining is the way the set is used to put us aboard The Endurance smack dab in the middle of the frozen, glacier-filled waters. Sound effects are strategically used in tandem with projections to successfully create storm effects while creative choreography takes us on a deadly hike through icy mountains.

This is one of those true incredible adventure stories that are long forgotten by most that, thanks to storytellers like The Irish Theatre of Chicago, we now get to experience and share in the surprisingly unbelievable depth of human spirit brought on by fantastic circumstances.

I should note that though this is a wonderful story taken from the pages of early 20th century history, if you are thinking of bring a young adult, be aware that there is a scene containing as a crew member streaks across the deck of the ship. 

Fittingly directed by ensemble member Robert Kauzlaric and written by Karen Tarjan, the world premiere run of “The White Road” is being performed at The Den Theatre through June 13th. For tickets and/or more information visit www.irishtheatreofchicago.org

Published in Theatre Reviews

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

Published in Theatre Reviews

"I was so much younger then - I'm younger than that now."  This is from the chorus of the opening song, "My Back Pages" by Bob Dylan. Those words were pretty much the theme of the evening during the solo performance by Roger McGuinn, the founder of The Byrds, at the Elgin Community College Arts Center.

To begin, picture this - room is dark just before hearing McGuinn's classic twelve-string Rickenbacker begin to hum. The spotlight soon after hits a man stage left who looks much younger than most 72-year-olds, as youthfulness has graced the legendary performer over the years. McGuinn kicks into a jam and we are off. After the opening number, McGuinn relocates to center stage where he sits for story time. Each story was as fascinating as the last as he shares his life freely with the audience. McGuinn played and sang throughout the night, introducing each number with an associated memory.

And what a history this man has had! The music naturally helped move each story along in a way that led us to a whole new experience. Alternating between guitars, his arsenal included both seven and twelve-string accoustics. He also played his Rickenbacker and performed one song on the banjo. He played two sets with a brief intermission sandwiched in between, making fans eager to see how McGuinn would top the first act. He did. The second set opened the same as the first and we were off to more magic from a true contributor to our pop culture as we know it.

It was nice to see a musician who has held up so well over the decades, both physically and on an entertainment level. Seeing him perform live really gave me an aprreciation as to what an outstanding guitar player he truly is. The Byrds are often thought of as an electric folk band, but Roger is clearly a bit deeper than that. McGuinn also showed his sense of humor in between one song after another. One thing for sure, McGuinn is still a highly entertaining performer.

 

The story goes on for this man of many talents. McGuinn has accomplished a lot in his lifetime and from the looks of it, plans to keep going. And I think that his fans hope that will be the case.  

 

Published in In Concert

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
Saturday, 02 May 2015 00:00

Review: Anna in the Afterlife

 "Anna in the Afterlife" is a play based on author Richard Engling’s friendship and collaboration with Fern Chertkow, a dear longtime friend, writer, and colleague who took her own life in 1988.

There was so much in this play that I enjoyed in terms of its emotional themes and the exploration of what happens to your consciousness immediately after death. The play also admirably tries to answer the question of what happens after death if you commit suicide.

Richard Engling played himself in this production which I think was meant to be sort of an homage to the Woody Allen type of storytelling but unfortunately Engling’s writing is so much better than his acting ability for the stage that all of the very talented supporting actors were forced to sort of dance around him, helping him into each moment on stage instead of playing the characters directly to each other as trained actors normally would.

The stage and lighting design were lovely to look at and helped define the storyline which jumped around in time a little too often to follow the main idea of the play. Literally jumping back in time to meeting his friend in Paris then back to his struggles in the afterlife then to visit all three splintered personalities of his friend as a little girl, young woman and deceased spirit, became very confusing after a while but were still interesting and evocative scenes in and of themselves.

The play in its current state can be moving at times and even has the ability to connect with its audience in areas particularly if you have recently lost a loved one and can easily identify with the soul searching and guilt that seems to universally accompany any death. Anna in the Afterlife might hit home especially if a friend or family member has suffered from cancer or another painful disease or has taken their own life.

The play definitely needs a rewrite though to make it more comprehensible as there is much to learn from this piece and many interesting ideas to ponder about grieving and the nature of life and death and consciousness. Also, Engling should step outside of the next production and cast a really talented and mature stage actor who can play his life in such a way so that we feel more compassion for his character’s flaws and struggles.

Directed by Susan Padveen, Anna in the Afterlife is playing at the Greenhouse Theatre Center through May 24th. For tickets and/or more information visit http://greenhousetheater.org/

Published in Theatre Reviews

The four performances that comprise “New Works” are also presented in a new venue for the Joffrey Ballet, The Cadillac Palace Theatre. Fitting, for the spring program which highlights four contemporary choreographers and leaves theater goers energized and refreshed. Joffrey’s usual home, the Auditorium Theatre, was being used for the NFL Draft, causing the temporary venue change.

Justin Peck, hailing from the New York City Ballet, holds up to his reputation with “In Creases” as the opening performance. The stage, outfitted with just two pianos, creates the perfect blank pallet to showcase the dancers. Outfitted in light grey, this piece takes all distraction away from the viewer, leaving you to appreciate the dancers ability, athleticism, and passion. The live pianos only amplify the risk of performing such a vulnerable piece. With nothing on stage to distract the viewer, any small mistake would be easily noticed, though the Joffrey ensemble danced this perfectly.

“Liturgy” is a brilliant pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon, with the dancers exuding chemistry and pure passion. It is one of those pieces where you can feel the dancers’ love for what they do. Jeraldine Mendoza and Fabrice Calmels, while physically almost complete opposite, Calmels being an easy head and shoulders taller than Mendoza, the two are perfectly in sync and graceful throughout the entire performance. At parts, it is almost as though the two are connected by strings they are so perfectly timed with one another. The excitement and power coming from the stage is infectious and makes the viewers heart race.  

The story of an anguished poet in “Evenfall” is a romantic progression of a relationship, from the first days through to the later years. The stage is outfitted with four mirrors through which the poet views the couple. The poet seems to be contemplating the relationship, and struggling to do so, as though he is reflecting on what once was and possibly what could be. Once again, Fabrice Calmels is commanding as one half of the older couple, amazing the viewers with his ability to be so fluid and soft. The piece is emotionally charged and gives the dancers a chance to showcase not only their technical ability, but their acting chops as well.

The final performance, “Incantations” by Val Caniparoli, was originally created for the Joffrey in 2012 and is nothing short of thrilling. The high paced and demanding choreography cannot be ignored. The dancers outfitted in tan costumes with flashes of red are mesmerizing as they own the stage. The focus of the performance is on constant and different pirouettes and turns leaving the viewer in awe. Joanna Wozniak and Dylan Gutierrez make a dynamic pair that is thrilling and powerful in every turn.

Joffrey’s “New Works” is just as hopeful and fresh as one would expect. The Cadillac Palace Theater provides a beautiful historic backdrop to the contemporary choreography of these four performances. The Joffrey Ballet once again put together an amazing performance and a great way to kick off the spring season.  

For tickets and/or more show information, visit http://www.joffrey.org/newworks

Published in Dance in Review
Monday, 27 April 2015 00:00

Review: A Coffin in Egypt

A legend in her own right, Frederica von Stade graces the stage with poise and perfection in Chicago Opera Theater's "A Coffin in Egypt". A veteran mezzo-soprano, her performances, recordings and television specials have garnered her six Grammy nominations, a cascade of European awards and recognition, and even an award from President Reagan in 1983 in recognition of her significant contribution to the arts.

The story presented in the opera comes from a tale by revered American dramatist Horton Foote, who's often seen play "The Trip to Bountiful" exemplifies his recurring themes of family, community and the triumph of the human spirit.

Ricky Ian Gordon, award winning composer, crafted this opera specifically to showcase Ms. von Stade's virtuosity. The opera was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, The Wallis Annenberg Center, and Opera Philadelphia.

Bringing together a wealth of skill and experience, unfortunately this show lacks a riveting climax. Essentially it is a monologue of a dying woman, ruminating on the memories and men that shaped her life. Sprinkled with a few strong songs, the majority of the music is asynchronous and wandering. The music stays mostly at the lower end of Ms von Stade's range, disappointing since her most beautiful moments are in the higher, longer notes where her voice is free and stunning. This is ironic and disappointing considering that this is supposed to be a piece to showcase her talent.

Although her emotions revolve constantly as she fixates on each memory, the lighting is too static and realistic to reflect, enhance or build her moods. The lighting did however enhance the boredom that grew until the curtain fell.

The set was charming however, reflecting the place and the lady's emotional turmoil with a simple and elegant design. Veteran scenic and costume designer Riccardo Hernandez met the challenge of being both scenic and costume designer for this production with success! Mr. Hernandez has also collaborated with the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago as well as in Paris, Norway, and the Moscow Art Theatre.

Chicago Opera Theater presents Ricky Ian Gordon's "A Coffin in Egypt" April 25 through May 3 at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph). Tickets are now on sale at chicagooperatheater.org.

Tw@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews
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. 

Published in Theatre Reviews

“Look, We Are Breathing” at Rivendell Theatre is a powerful drama that deals with the coping of loss. Written by Chicago playwright Laura Jaccqmin, “Look, We Are Breathing” examines the grieving process when the one taken away so unexpectedly never really amounted to much nor has shown the potential to ever become much of anything at all. This is the case when high school hockey player Mike is killed in a drunk driving accident on his way home from a party. Always a troublemaker with a bad attitude, rude and the perennial class clown, Mike is disrespectful to his parents, his teachers and is one to take advantage of a girl’s innocence given the chance. He’s exactly what we don’t want to see in a teenage boy. Passing thoughts wonder if maybe the world would be a better place without someone like Mike.

This hard-hitting four-character play deals with the aftermath of Mike’s tragic accident. A series of flashbacks throughout the play help us get to know Mike while narratives from his English teacher Leticia, his mother Alice and his one-night stand, Caylee, provide us with more of an understanding of Mike’s behavior and the effect it had on those close to him – and those who wanted to be close to him.  

The set is simplistic. A chest-like trunk sits center stage that is used at times for a dining table or a car when need be. But the sets simplicity in this case is a plus as it helps direct focus where it should be – on the characters and story. Cast members Lily Mojekwu (Leticia), Brennan Stacker (Caylee), Tara Mallen (Alice) and Brendan Meyer (Mike) make a special point of making eye contact with the audience members in this intimate thirty-six seat theatre, as they explain themselves and open up as though expecting comforting words in return.

This play works because of its absorbing story and the very heavy-duty acting performances by each and every cast member. “Look, We Are Breathing” is a gripping story that is sure to draw in the average theatre goer, and might relate especially to those who have suffered recent losses. Towards the play’s end Caylee talks about what could have been rather than reflecting on Mike’s past behavioral issues and lack of promise of any sort. Then we stop and think - Even when you question if someone's life is worth it, when they are young, they have no time to grow out of it – and that’s the truest tragedy. They have no time to grow up to be the ENT doctor, to build meaningful friendships, to become a loving parent or to contribute in making this world a better place. We learn compassion and empathy as we grow older and “Look” understands that rather than judging one’s short past.

True to their claim that Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is Chicago’s only Equity theatre dedicated to producing new work with women in core roles, “Look” presents three strong characters in a mourning mother, a girl who believes there was more to a relationship than there really was and a teacher who tries desperately to get through to a student who has built many walls.

“Look, We Are Breathing” is playing at Rivendell Theatre (5779 N Ridge Ave, Chicago) through May 16th. For tickets and/or more show information call 773-334-7728 or visit www.RivendellTheatre.org.            

                                                                                                                                                      

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 15 April 2015 00:00

The Grown-Up - Shattered Globe Theatre

In today’s culture of OnDemand and streaming entertainment, one has to wonder how theatre art will adapt. Accomplished playwright Jordan Harrison also currently writes for the hit Netflix series ‘Orange is the New Black.’ Nobody can argue that Mr. Harrison hasn’t mastered the one-hour drama format, but what we can argue is whether or not that form works in theatre. Often when audiences stand and applaud even poor performances, they’re standing to congratulate themselves, to say we did it! We spent money and sat still for two hours! It’s over! Are we cultured now? Despite the convenience of home entertainment, people still go to the theatre to be intellectually stimulated and even challenged, they expect the playwright to uphold his end of the bargain.

At the conclusion of Shattered Globe’s production of Harrison’s play ‘The Grown-Up’, an audience of albeit mostly theatre critics was pretty quiet. This is usually an achievement for a playwright whose work has left its audience stunned. In this case, it was an audience left without an impression, and without enough material to commend themselves for sitting through.

‘The Grown-Up’ tells the story of Actor A, or Kai (Keven Viol) who’s grandfather, Actor B (Ben Werling) gives him a magic door-knob with which he can fast forward to the unpleasant and unfulfilling realities of his adulthood. Safely packaged in a chronological structure, we see the very brief disappointments and adult anxieties that await little Kai.  While these scenes have glimmers of relatability, they’re too short to invest in character and instead come off as series of clichés.  Rather than relying on dialog to explain how these moments of Kai’s life are fraught with meaning, we’re lazily told by various narrators. The script capitalizes on too many trendy devices, but doesn’t validate their necessity.

Shattered Globe has the talent to justify the one-hour run time of this play. Director Krissy Vanderwarker’s aesthetic inserts some personality to this static drama.  Actor D (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) plays a few of roles, but really becomes a focal point of the play as a secretary trying to keep up in life. Gonzales-Cruz provides most of the laughs and the most intriguing performance.

Plays like ‘The Grown-Up’ are part of a growing trend in American playwriting that protect themselves in metaphysical chow-chow so that if you don’t like it, you just didn’t get it. What counts in a live performance is what the audience takes away, and if there’s not enough script to resonate with a viewer, what’s the point?

@ Shattered Globe Theatre. 1229 W Belmont. 773-975-8150. Through May 23rd

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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