Final Week of great shows: Dog and Pony, Redmoon, ATC

Time Is Running Out!

by Venus Zarris

One of the most amazing and disheartening aspects of live theater is the immediacy of the experience. No two shows, of the same production, are ever alike and so every performance is a once in a lifetime opportunity. That being said, plays are shooting stars in the grand scheme of things.  You either see them or they are gone forever, unlike film that you can catch on DVD and watch over and over again.

Chicago makes this urgency even more demanding as there is so much exceptional work being produced but the many gifted companies. With this in mind there are a few shows in particular that extra efforts should be made to catch before they are no longer an option.

“Boneyard Prayer” – This breathtakingly bleak examination of sorrow and regret told through Redmoon’s unparalleled conceptualization. Their brilliant offering is spellbinding and creates a uniquely poignant and emotional journey.

(“Boneyard Prayer” runs through May 25 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard St. 312-850-8440 x111.)

“As Told By the Vivian Girls” – This unique production plunges you into the strange and absurd world of underground artist Henry Darger. It creates a funhouse experience as you walk through Theater on The Lake exploring selected aspects of his work, taken from his 1500 page manuscript and various paintings and illustrations, brought to life by actors rendering his fantastical characters and creatures. Dog and Pony Theater Company ambitiously creates a remarkable living-breathing homage to Darger’s bizarre and brilliant imaginary realms.

(“As Told By The Vivian Girls” runs through May 25 at Theater on the Lake, 2401 N. Lake Shore Drive at Fullerton. 773-360-7933.)

Speech and Debate – Playwright Stephen Karam creates a brilliantly funny joy ride in this show about three misfit high school kids dealing with their sexual secrets while trying to start a speech team and gay/straight student alliance. Karam has written one of the funniest roles for a young woman ever penned and Sadieh Rafai’s performance of this character is a laugh riot that is sure to delight!

(“Speech and Debate” runs through May 31 at American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron St. 773-929-1031.)

Run, don’t walk, to catch any or all of these incredible ‘NOT TO BE MISSED’ productions while you still have the chance!

May 22, 2008 | 0 Comments More

Review – “Boneyard Prayer” at Redmoon Theatre

Redmoon’s “Boneyard Prayer”

reviewed by Venus Zarris

Redmoon Theatre's triumphant "Boneyard Prayer"Once again setting the standard for the reinvention of theatrical thought, Redmoon’s ‘Bonyard Prayer’ is a triumph of imagination and creativity. If you have already experienced Redmoon’s work than you understand that when you visit them you are in for at least the unconventional and at best, which is normally the case, the extraordinary. ‘Boneyard Prayer’ certainly fits under both of these classifications.

It traces the cycles of regret through the upheaval of a man’s grave by five gravediggers. Through this remarkable hallucination of somber reflection we see the tragedy of a mistake’s impact on the lives of those it effects.

This is, to say the least, a dirty show. And I don’t mean X-rated, rather 641 pounds of soil are employed to create the burial site. Working with puppets on a multi leveled stage the breathtakingly bleak word of a graveyard is rendered with fantastical effect. The gravediggers dig, sing and animate the puppetry, be that actual or the shadow variety, to tell this sad story.

Charles Kim’s musical composition sounds like a Tom Wait’s homage, the perfect musical soundtrack for this austere dream. It is wonderfully performed by Rob Cruz, playing a piano that sounds like an old barroom upright that hasn’t had a tuning since The Great Depression and has been the recipient of more than one bottle of beer. This tawdry sound only adds to the forlorn wanderings on this purgatorial trip to the root of personal demise.

Not the ‘feel good show’ of the season, you would be well advised to bare the topic in mind. The play opens with a melancholy lullaby sung to an infant who is then placed back in his grave. The night that I attended the play a pregnant woman in the front row who was quickly moved to tears and then left the theater.

I add that not as much as a cautionary note but to illustrate to emotional depth and power of this sorrowfully poignant masterpiece.

Theater can do so much more than simply entertain. It can stretch our mind to process and encompass all aspect of the human condition thereby broadening our emotional vocabulary and our abilities to understand and empathize with others and with ourselves.

This is a lovely examination of the distressing side of our reality. All of the technical and creative elements coalesce flawlessly to deliver a haunting experience that will linger with you long after you leave the theater. This heart rendering and gorgeous production is well worth the emotional investment and should not be missed.

Rating: «««½

 (“Boneyard Prayer” runs through May 25 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard St. 312-850-8440 x111 – www.redmoon.org)

 

May 16, 2008 | 0 Comments More

Theater Oobleck’s “The Strangerer” extended

THEATER OOBLECK’S THE STRANGERER EXTENDED

Bush, Kerry and Camus Meet Again at Chopin Theatre Through June 29

Theater Oobleck proudly announces the extension of Mickle Maher’s smash hit The Strangerer at The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, through Sunday, June 29. Mickle Maher, Guy Massey, Colm O’Reilly and Brian Shaw star in The Strangerer, deconstructing the first George Bush/ John Kerry presidential debate with a satirical twist inspired by the Albert Camus classic The Stranger. The Strangerer marks the beginning of Theater Oobleck’s 20th anniversary season.  

The Strangerer, which opened April 4, extends through June 29 at the Chopin Theatre. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 “more if you’ve got it, free if you’re broke.” For information or reservations, call 773.347.1041 or visit www.theateroobleck.com.

May 12, 2008 | 0 Comments More

A new home for Steep Theatre!

It seemed innocent enough – I was just waiting this past Sunday for a friend to pick me up at the Berwin Red Line stop.  While waiting there, however, I spotted this sign in the window of an empty storefront:

Sign posted at Steep Theatre\'s new location

Needless to say, I was very excited to see this. Steep Theatre has been an outstanding theatre company here in Chicago, promoting the sort of ensemble-based productions for which Chicago is best known.  And knowing that Steep is investing both the time and money into a new space assures that Steep will be here for years to come.  Yeah!  Here’s a few more pictures:

Front door of Steep Theatre\'s new location set for opening this Fall 2008

Side view of Steep Theatre\'s upcoming location, set for Fall 2008.

As you can tell, this is a great location, with a much larger space, complete with large sun-gathering windows.  And the site is just down the street from the Berwyn el-stop.  In a perfect world, the theatre company will be able to work out some kind of parking accomodations with the Jewel grocery store across the street.  You can see what a great improvement this will be for the theatre by comparing it with their present space:

Steep Theatre, presently on Sheridan a block south of the Sheridan el stop

I found these poetic words on Steep Theatre’s website:

Steep Theatre Company is our family and Steep Theatre is our home.  We have created an environment that other artists and audience members have always found welcoming, enjoyable and engaging.  Each of our talented members are dedicated both artistically and administratively to making Steep a fixture in the Chicago theatre community.

I wish Steep Theatre, and the Steep Theatre family, the best of success in their future space.

April 29, 2008 | 0 Comments More

Review – Theatre Oobleck’s “The Strangerer”

Review by guest reviewer Venus Zarris.

I met my lover and some dear friends tonight for cocktails, all abuzz from last night’s production. When I told the name of the play my friend Star said, “You mean ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus?” “Well, yes and no.” I answered. ‘The Stranger,’ a classic absurdist novel that tells of senseless murder, was on Bush’s 2006 vacation reading list. This inspired playwright Mickle Maher to examine the president through the absurdist world of Camus’s writing and the result is a hysterically wonderful example of theater’s most exigent possibilities.    

I came away from Theater Oobleck’s production of ‘The Strangerer’ asking a question that I don’t think I’ve ever asked before in the hundreds of plays that I have reviewed. Where is playwright Mickle Maher’s Pulitzer Prize? This question was as urgent as the underlying message of Maher’s deceptively profound script.

There have been countless depictions of George W. Bush‘s ineptitude and arrogance. If there is one thing that he has done right, and this is just about the only thing that can be said for him on a positive note, it is that he has provided more fuel for humor and parody than any president in the last several decades. But it has become cliché to mock Bush, too easy, too obvious. The idiosyncratic absurdities of his mannerisms and his infantile grasp of the English language have been fodder for seasoned satirists, novice stand-up comedians and everyday people alike. So what makes ‘The Strangerer’ more than just another exceptional vehicle for dead on impersonation?… The fact that it nails perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Bush’s reign of terror by illuminating the blatant and surreal disregard for human life that he has displayed.

As we complain on a daily basis about the rising cost of gas, (rapidly approaching what is tantamount to a Kruggerand a gallon) observe America’s standings in the world reduced to a joke, cringe every time a presidential address is babbled by a man who’s communication style consists of self congratulatory grins after successful completions of multi syllabic words, and struggle with the plethora of daily domestic and international foibles of the current administration we loose sight of the very real and frightening fact that our country is being run by a murderer.

We can calculate the decline of the economy. We can calculate the damage to the environment. We can calculate the devastation of foreign diplomatic credibility. But we cannot begin to calculate the toll this administration has taken in human life and human suffering. The implications are exponential, staggering and embody a lethal chaos theory. That is to say that all of the other maladies perpetuated by George W. Bush, and you can include many people in the debauchery but the buck stops with the commander in chief, are simply smoke screens to this administrator of mass destruction.

The setting for ‘The Strangerer’ is the first Bush/Kerry presidential debate in 2004. It starts out appearing to be a straightforward recreation but rapidly descends into madness as Bush repeatedly tries different methods of killing moderator Jim Lehrer. The question is not why an innocent man should be killed but rather what is the proper manner in which to go about killing him.

Colm O’Reilly’s remarkable portrayal of Jim Lehrer is spot on and sets a very controlled and structured opening tone. Mickle Maher’s performance of Kerry is hysterically vapid and astutely illustrative of his under enthusiasm and compliance to the political status quo. But it is Guy Massey that elevates the, already ingenious, material to extraordinarily astounding levels. He approaches what could be a trap of obvious characterization and impersonation with a 190 actors IQ and creates a tour de force that is as breathtaking as the writing that he is animating. His performance will go down in the annals of best performances that you have ever seen. This is an exceptional ensemble that delivers this show with a unified vision and unwavering focus. They are clever, tight, spellbinding and at times side splittingly funny.

You will be hard pressed to locate a production that even approaches the accomplishments of this show, much less can be included in it’s league. In examining a cross section of absurdity, ethics and theater Maher has created quite possibly the most brilliant political polemic you will ever see and something that is amazingly entertaining.

To miss this show is to miss a unique and incredible opportunity. This is why Chicago theater is incomparable.

Rating: «««« 
 
Related Links: TimeOut Chicago article; other “The Strangerer” reviews.

‘The Strangerer’ runs through May 11 The Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays and 8pm and Sundays at .3pm Tickets are a suggested $10 but they are ‘more if you’ve got it, free if you’re broke’ making this production accessible to everyone. For information or reservations call 773-347-1014 or visit www.theateroobleck.com.

 

 

 

 

 

April 29, 2008 | 1 Comment More

Chicago theatre on YouTube – Lookingglass and Steppenwolf

A scene from the recently-closed “Hephaestus” at LookingGlass Theatre.

A scene from “Schadenfreude” at Steppenwolf.

April 28, 2008 | 0 Comments More

Review – “Los Desaparecidos” (The Vanished)

Babes With Blades has never believed in playing it safe, and this can certainly be seen in the final production of their 10th Anniversary season – the world premiere of Barbara Lhota’s Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished).  The germination of the play all started from a rather cool playwright competition: entrants were presented with the painting “Duelo de Mujeres” (The Duel of Women), and instructed to create a play with the painting as inspiration.  Out of over 20 entries, the winning playwright, Barbara Lhota, has created a raucous and sexy world where women gladly take up the sword for fun and heroism (though set in 16th-century Spain, the play seems to not be of any time-period).  Using many Shakespearean devices, Los Desaparecidos explores the impact of family ties, societal pressures, and unexpected love in the lives of two sisters.  Los Desaparecidos is ultimately about how the power of love can triumph over intolerance. 

Pros: The performances are exemplary – so full of passion and athleticism, that it leaves one exhausted.  The three powerful leading women – Stephanie Repin (Diana), Meghan Martinez (Isabel) and Rachel Stubbs (Eliana) – truly shine in their roles. 

Cons: At times the pacing seems to falter, though it quickly rights itself throughout.   Ending is a bit implausible.

Summary: Take a cast of passionate actors, throw in a fun script, season it with spicy sword fights and taboo romances, and – if such a thing suits you – you end up with a swashbuckling time at the theatre. 

Rating: «««    

Production: Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished)
Playwright: Barbara Lhota
Director: David Woolley
Featuring: Stephanie Repin (Diana), Meghan M. Martinez (Isabel), Rachel Stubbs (Eliana), Sean Patrick Leonard (Eduardo), Lisa Herceg (Marisol), Paul E. Martinez (Frederico), Mercedes Rohlfs (Lucilla), Morgan Manasa (Zania), Dustin Spence (Father Roberto, The Man), Libby Beyreis (Servanct), Ryan Christopher Zarecki (Servant), Gregory M. Larson (Antonio)
Design Team: Tina Bernacchi (Asst. Director/Dramaturg), Leigh Barrett (Lighting), Alex Braatz (Sound), Anders Jacobson (Scenery), Michelle Julazdeh (Costumes), Libby Beyreis (Fight Captain), Sean Patrick Leonard (Makeup Effects)
Technical Team: Kjerstine McHugh (Stage Manager), Amy E. Harmon (Producer), Gillian N. Humiston (Assistant Producer), Alison Dornheggen (Marketing)
Coming next: Land of the Free by Mark Burns, directed by Beth Cummings – Fall 2008
More info: www.BabesWithBlades.org

Diana (Stephanie Repin) and Antonio (Gregory M. Larson) fall in love

Diana (Stephanie Repin) and Antonio (Gregory M. Larson) fall in love  

 Diana (Stephanie Repin) faces Eliana (Rachel Stubbs) in single combat in Babes With Blades\' \

Diana (Stephanie Repin) faces Eliana (Rachel Stubbs) in single combat in Babes With Blades’ “Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished)”

Diana (Stephanie Repin) and her sister Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez) work through a disagreement

Diana (Stephanie Repin) and her sister Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez) work through a disagreement!!

Frederico (Paul E. Martinez) and Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez) try to have a child in Babes With Blades\' \

Frederico (Paul E. Martinez) and Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez) try to have a child

Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez) and Diana (Stephanie Repin) work through a disagreement in Babes With Blades\' \

Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez) and Diana (Stephanie Repin) work through a disagreement

Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez), Eliana (Rachel Stubbs), and Diana (Stephanie Repin) meet in Babes With Blades\' \

Isabel (Meghan M. Martinez), Eliana (Rachel Stubbs), and Diana (Stephanie Repin) meet in Babes With Blades' "Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished)"

Servants Marisol (Lisa Herceg) and Eliana (Rachel Stubbs) gossip in Babes With Blades\' \

Servants Marisol (Lisa Herceg) and Eliana (Rachel Stubbs) gossip amongst themselves

April 23, 2008 | 4 Comments More

Review: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Steppenwolf

Jean is a rather dull, introverted woman.  She spends her free-time reading at coffeehouses whilst the world hums and haws around her.  One day, however, while engrossed in a book, a man next to her refuses to answer his cellphone.  After repeatedly admonishing the man to answer his phone, Jean ventures over to his table, and discovers the stunning reason why the phone was not answered – the man is dead.  As this morbid realization overtakes her, the cellphone again begins to ring; Jean answers it.  So starts the beginning of Jean’s madcap, surreal and at times frustrating journey as created and presented by playwright Sarah Ruhl and Steppenwolf Theatre’s associate director Jessica Thebus – a journey that steamrolls Jean from a dinner with the family of the dead guy (Gordon), a tryst with Gordon’s brother Dwight, separate outings with Gordon’s wife and mistress, a zany afterlife detour, and culminating with a tumultuous South African rendezvous with underworld dealers of body-organ smuggling.  Whew!

There is a lot to love in Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  Above all, it’s a fun and unpredictable.  There are times where Thebus has masterfully created truly refreshing and whimsical stage pictures – the most memorable for me being a scene involving Jean and Dwight: as the two lust-birds go at it in Dwight’s stationary store, glowing paper houses appear in the background, and sheets of stationary flutter and weave down from the ceiling.  Why is this happening?  I don’t fully know, but it sure is amusing.  Ruhl’s skillful writing shines most in her coupled dialogues, especially the hilarious interchange with Jean and Gordon’s widow Hermia over cocktails.  Though all of Dean Man’s technical aspects mirror Steppenwolf’s usual mastery, the lighting outdoes itself.  Lighting designer James Ingalls’ use of illumination to showcase the story is especially evident in his glowing houses (see above) and umbrellas and body parts (see pictures below). 

I have a few misgivings with this production.  Most pertinently, the role of Jean (Polly Noonan) seems to be miscast and a bit misdirected.  Jeans presents herself as a single, twenty-something woman, naively zoned-out, part airhead and part manipulator.  But according to the script she’s actually well into her 30’s, which is not how Jean looks or appears.  Adding to this, we’re denied an ending that matches the quirkiness and magic of the rest of the play, which is unfortunate.

Summary: Dead Man’s Cell Phone, despite a few misdials, is an offbeat, boisterous production that lends itself well to Steppenwolf’s usual topnotch output.  Recommended.

Rating: «««

Production: Dean Man’s Cell Phone
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Jessica Thebus
Featuring: Molly Regan (Mrs Gottlieb), Sarah Charipar (Other Woman, Stranger), Geraldine Dulex (Ensemble), Marc Grapey (Gordon), Coburn Goss (Dwight), Mary Beth Fisher (Hermia), Polly Noonan (Jean), Ben Whiting (Ensemble) and Marilyn Dodds Frank (Mrs Gottlieb after June 1).
Design Team: Scott Bradley (Scenery), Linda Roethke (Costumes), James F. Ingalls (Lighting), Andre Pluess (Sound and Original Music), Ann Boyd (Choreography) Joe Dempsey (Fight Choreography),
Technical Team: Christine D. Freeburg (Stage Manager), Michelle Medvin (Asst. Stage Manager)
More Info: www.steppenwolf.org

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Polly Noonan) answers the dreaded cellphone

(left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan  in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Dinner at the Gotlieb’s with (left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan.

– Marc Grapey in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Marc Grapey as the Dead Man.

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Polly Noonan (Jean) with glowing umbrellas. 

Ensemble member Molly Regan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Mrs. Gotlieb (ensemble member Molly Regan) speaks at funeral. 

Polly Noonan (left) and Mary Beth Fisher (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Happy Hour with Jean (Noonan) and Hermia (Mary Beth Fisher). 

Sarah Charipar (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008

The Other Woman (Sarah Charipar) and Jean (Noonan) with glowing kidney.

Polly Noonan and Coburn Goss in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Noonan and Dwight (Coburn Goss) build a paper house.

April 22, 2008 | 3 Comments More