Theatre

John Accrocco

John Accrocco

It’s not often a theatre company tackles two Pulitzer Prize winning plays in one season, but Steppenwolf is doing just that. While you may grow a long white beard waiting to see the 2016 winner, "Hamilton," Steppenwolf has 2014 and 2015 covered with "The Flick" and "Between Riverside and Crazy." Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' work was last seen at the Steppenwolf in 2012 with "The Motherf@cker with the Hat." He won the 2015 Pulitzer for "Between Riverside and Crazy." 

 

"Between Riverside and Crazy" is largely similar to "The Motherf@cker with the Hat," in that it deals with issues of addiction and inequality. "Riverside" tells the story of Walter (Eamonn Walker) who's a retired cop with one of the last rent controlled apartments in a nice part of Manhattan. The catch is that he's hopelessly waiting for a settlement from the city because he was shot by another officer. Walter, or Pops, as he's called has a habit of taking in degenerates and trying to nurse them back to health. He forgives people of their sins and keeps company with thieves and whores, sound familiar? 

 

Guirgis' play couldn't come about at a more topical time. Though, when thinking of an ethics tale about a police shooting, most would have a different notion of how the author would address issues of race. Guirgis is unflinchingly realistic, with the point being that nobody is perfect. The space between right and wrong seems to be too narrow for this play, as are most instances in life. What he does well is set characters up to appear one way, only to cynically devolve into what we're conditioned to assume. 

 

Eamonn Walker impeccably leads this top-notch cast. He's able to embody the grizzled, but lovable character in such a natural way you'd think you've known him forever. Audrey Francis also stands out in her performance as Walter's former beat partner. She plays an unlikeable character with such sincerity that you almost forget she's not really on Walter's side. Lily Mojekwu is one of the show's best hidden gems. Her character, Church Lady, doesn’t enter until well into the second act, but her narrative propels the story to its conclusion. She's another character you want to trust, but if you've been in the real world long enough, you know better. 

 

Yasen Peyankov's production of "Between Riverside and Crazy" is a slow building, but highly rewarding theatre experience on the same level as "Clybourn Park." Good for the Steppenwolf for forcing unpleasant issues in the face of middle class audiences. While some may leave the theater feeling as if their world views are affirmed, others will leave questioning their own morals. 

 

Through August 21st at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

 

"It's a wicked book," Steinbeck once said of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Grapes of Wrath". The seminole book about the Great Depression appeared in early 1939, just as the U.S. was clawing its way out of the trenches of poverty and into the boon of WWII. It tells the story of the Joads, an average American family pushed off their land, who seek migrant labor in the mythical Eden of California. 

 

In 1988, a still fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre Company adapted the epic novel for the stage. The play was a huge hit and soon transferred to Broadway where it went on to win the Tony award for Best Play. The adapter, Frank Galati has since adapted a few other novels for Steppenwolf, including "East of Eden" in 2015. 

 

Under the direction of Erica Weiss, The Gift Theatre revives this now classic play. Weiss' production is about big choices. Color-blind casting of the play's lead, Tom Joad, makes for dynamic monologues that dig a little deeper than perhaps what even Steinbeck had in mind. Other choices, like adding in a homoerotic plotline, seem a bit more random.

 

That said, performances among this giant cast are strong. When fully assembled, there are about as many people on stage as in the audience. In the role of disgraced Reverend Jim Casy is Jerre Dye. His performance as a man struggling with faith in godless times is one of the show's greatest revelations. Other standout performances include Kona N. Burks as Ma Joad and Alexandra Main portraying a sundry of characters.  

 

"The Grapes of Wrath" is one of those stories that's just downright unpleasant. The novel is structured in a way that sheds light on the Great Depression in a general sense and then doubles back to show the Joad's individual struggle. You find yourself hoping that this family will avoid the pitfalls set before them. You almost wish nothing good would ever happen to the Joads because a few scenes later, it'll be ripped away from them. It remains relevant some 75 years later because what Steinbeck (and Galati) are presenting is a damning indictment of American ideals that have yet to change. 

 

Through August 14th at The Gift Theatre. 4802 N Milwaukee Ave. 773-283-7071

 

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.

 

 

Prepare to be taken on a journey with Timeline Theatre at their production of "Chimerica." Directed by Nick Bowling, "Chimerica" is an epic saga of a play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. While a solid three hours of theater may be discouraging for some, this play makes it well worth the time. 

 

Spoiler alert, "Chimerica" is a story about Chinese-American relations, not Chicago. That said, John Culbert's stage design addresses it pretty head-on. One side of the stage is an ironically vintage New York City apartment, a wide gulf separates it from a shabby Beijing tenement. A Macbook sits on the coffee table of the American apartment, a well-known symbol of strife between these two worlds. 

 

Lucy Kirkwood's play makes its American debut at Timeline. It is the story of a photo journalist, Joe Schofield, who took the famous picture of a man standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. We catch up with Schofield (Coburn Goss) in 2012 as he tries to persuade his magazine editor to do a story about the Tank Man 23 years later. Joe's kept a long-time friendship with a professor in Beijing, Zhang (Norman Yap), who is the story's window into Chinese life. Joe falls in love with largely uninvolved marketing expert, Tessa (Eleni Pappageorge) who's on a mission to "figure out" the Chinese for a credit card company. Joe becomes determined to track down the man he accidentally made famous, and in the process, a global chase ensues. 

 

There are a ton of characters in this play. Some more consequential than others. Nick Bowling has assembled a very talented cast of Asian-American actors on which the moral backbone of this story hinges. In fact, there's not a bad performance in this play. 

 

One could dissect the themes of this show for hours, but for the sake of brevity, we won't. What is immediately fascinating is that this is a story told from the mindset of someone caught in the middle. It's a story about how America and China are becoming more alike as well as their inherent differences. It’s a story about what is actually dictating "free press" in America. It’s a story about how foreign countries see American politics, particularly Hillary Clinton. It's also a story with great heart. Lucy Kirkwood is not just delivering a geo-political thesis, but also a compassionate look at the lives of ordinary people. At times this very-right-now drama can seem to go on and on, but in the end it adds up to a very bittersweet conclusion and a lot to take home and unpack. 

 

Through July 31st at Timeline Theatre. 615 W Wellington Ave. 773-281-8463.

 

 

Once in awhile a musical comes around so weird that you have to see it to understand it. Based on a 1960 b-movie of the same name, "Little Shop or Horrors" tells the story of a man-eating plant raised by a nerdy guy working in a flower shop. Legendary composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaborated on a musical version of it as a tribute to 60s rock 'n roll and drive-in movies. It started as an Off-Off Broadway show in 1982 and then transitioned to the Off-Broadway Orpheum Theatre, where it ran for five years.  The film version followed in 1986 and is considered one of the best movie musicals ever made.

 

It's no surprise American Blues Theater had to extend their production by popular demand. Jonathan Berry directs an excellent "Little Shop of Horrors" for American Blues Theater with musical direction by Austin Cook. From the get-go, audiences will find themselves caught in the tentacles of this plant tale. Real-life married couple Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron play Seymour and Audrey. Both have incredible voices and make these characters their own. The result is very charming. The stoop urchins: Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal (aptly named after the girl groups they sing in the style of) are so good they may even outshine the plant. Camille Robinson, Jasondra Johnson and Eunice Woods crush their roles as the doo-wop Greek chorus. It seems like these three fantastic voices are having a blast working together. That said, the voice of the man-eating plant, Audrey II, provided by Lorenzo Rush Jr is really powerful, with a contagious evil laugh.

 

Despite the strong talent on the stage and in the pit, this "Little Shop of Horrors" further succeeds in its well designed set by Grant Sabin. This show requires a good puppet master. Sarah E Ross' Audrey II puppets are awesome. The puppet creates some of the best laughs of the evening, especially in the finale.

 

Like "Rocky Horror", and "Grease" - the music of "Little Shop of Horrors" makes you feel good. The team behind this musical was also responsible for Disney's string of critically acclaimed animated musicals like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast."  "Little Shop of Horrors" at America Blues Theater is a show you'd have to be a mean, green, mother not to enjoy. (John Accrocco)

 

Through June 26th at The Greenhouse Theatre. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 773-404-7336

Police brutality is nothing new. Having it broadcast on national news sources, however, is. The deep South in the 1960's wasn't a fun place to be if you were anything but a Christian Caucasian. Shattered Globe Theatre concludes its twenty-fifth season with Matt Pelfrey's adaptation of John Ball's best-selling novel "In the Heat of the Night." The film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

 

Pelfrey's script keeps with the original time and setting, but adapts with a degree of hindsight. He's also good at keeping the pot boiling until the final conclusion, even if the dots don't exactly connect in the end. With the success of TV series like "Making a Murderer" and the podcast "Serial" - audiences can't get enough crime thrillers. What these all seem to have in common are police inadequacy. A disappointing trend among rural police forces. "In the Heat of the Night" tells the story of a small town reeling after a local real estate tycoon is murdered. The prejudiced, and largely incompetent law enforcement can't seem to find a suspect. After they accidentally profile an African American from out of town, they get help from an unlikely source. 

 

Louis Contey directs a large, and talented ensemble cast. Unfortunately the script is a bit clunky in parts. Too many entrances, exits and costume changes make for a puzzling caper. There's fun in the noir-esque stylings of Contey's vision, but it conflicts with the bigger themes this source material addressed. Character development suffers and the message of Ball's original novel gets a little muddled in empty one-liners and racial slurs. There's a major opportunity here to make biased police officers more three dimensional and Drew Schad as Sam Wood does his best to navigate the dialogue. Joseph Wiens' performance as Chief Gillespie is intense, but at times cartoonish. Christina Gorman as the victim's daughter is a high point, however brief. 

 

"In the Heat of the Night" is a sultry, and somewhat topical thriller. Its brevity and mathematical approach make for a satisfying murder mystery. What it occasionally lacks in substance it makes up for in exciting stage combat. An atmospheric who-dunnit, akin to "Twin Peaks." 

 

Through June 5th at Theatre Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150.

 

While not explicitly a biography about The Supremes, "Dreamgirls" is awfully close. It's a Quincy Jones-flavored musical about the road to fame, and the pitfalls of show business. Porchlight Theatre concludes its season with a rarely produced modern classic. Choreographed and directed by Brenda Didier, with musical direction by Doug Peck, "Dreamgirls" is a delight. 

 

"Dreamgirls" is really one of the first musicals about the early days of rock 'n roll. Though it's about more than just the rise of the "girl group" in popular music. The book by Tom Eyen uses a familiar story to illustrate how mainstream music helped open minds about race in America. The original Broadway production opened in 1981 and ran for four years. It has since been adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. 

 

Porchlight has assembled an all-star cast for this production. Particularly Donica Lynn as Effy. The three Dreams fill the rafters with soaring vocals. While Lynn may be the voice, Candace C. Edwards and Katherine Thomas as co-Dreams, turn in strong performances as well. Eric Lewis is electrifying in the role of fictional soul legend Jimmy Early. His numbers are thrilling.  

 

Didier's vision for this show is vivid. Her choreography is high-energy and visually pleasing throughout. Peck's musical direction proves a high point as well. It's not often you find yourself thinking about the band in a theatrical performance - but the wall of sound coming from this pit is a funky good time. Rounding out aesthetics are Bill Morey's costumes, which are well conceived and provide an extra layer of authenticity. 

 

Porchlight Music Theatre turns out another gem at Stage 773. "Dreamgirls" is a feast for the eyes and ears. Shows like "The Wiz" and "Dreamgirls" aren't produced nearly as often as they should be, which makes this impressive production all the more rare. The vocals are so good you'll wish you could take the soundtrack home with you. 

 

Through May 22nd at Stage 773. 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

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

 

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. 

 

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