Another year, another 12 months of great theater! 2013 blessed the Windy City with inspired new works and riveting revivals from a wide range of companies – the largest equity houses to the smallest of Chicago’s storefronts. Taking into account the 600+ productions that we reviewed in 2013, here are our picks for the best of the best. Bravo!! (note: for the 3rd year in a row, we’re honored to have the national website Huffington Post use our choices for their Top 10 Chicago productions!)
Holla Q Bros – ‘Funk it Up’ is da bomb!
|Chicago Shakes and Merrigong Theatre Company presents|
|Funk It Up About Nothin’|
|Adapted and Directed by JQ and GQ
at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map)
thru Feb 13 | tickets: $25-$30 | more info
One of our great regrets of 2008 was missing Funk It Up About Nothin’, a “hip-hoptation” of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by a pair of brothers who go by JQ and GQ. It you did likewise, we urge you to run, not walk, to get a ticket to this raptastic take on Shakespeare’s equally brilliant comedy.
Fear not if you’re someone who leans more toward classic rock than the frenzied spin of contemporary scratch ‘n burn djs or the rapid-fire beats of rappers. You definitely do not need to be a hip-hop hipster to appreciate the whipsmart wordplay and percussive joys of Funk It Up. Were Shakespeare alive, dare we say, he would surely love what the Qs have done with “Much Ado”.
The key to the piece’s success is this: The Q Brothers are all about the text. As both directors and adaptors of the piece, they demonstrate a deep understanding of it, and from that well of knowledge, they create an adaptation wherein the words bounce, ricochet, rocket, rattle and hum with all the smarts, heart and – most importantly – the wicked humor of the original. Funk It Up is an hour-long word party that remains true to its source in terms of plot, characters and tone.
The cast, all of whom play multiple roles, spits out the verbiage like master poet slammers. As MC Lady B (Beatrice), Ericka Ratcliff is all sass and strut, a ferocious wit packaged in latex, fishnets and bling, deploying more brains of a Mensa member and more crackling sex appeal than a studio full of gyrating video vixens. As Benedick, JQ swaggers like a peacock, loving the single life and bragging about the ladies with a preening vanity that doesn’t quite conceal the one-woman heart that lies beneath his rep.
One of the (many) joys of Funk It Up is the attention paid to the supporting characters. Sure they’re broad, but they are also as well-defined as the leads – right down to the bumptious groundlings.
As Lady B’s cousin Hero, Jillian Burfete makes the ingénue amusingly simple. Hero is one of Shakespeare’s flatter characters – she’s pretty, and innocent and that’s about it. Burfete uses that one-dimensionality to wonderful comic advantage, making Hero a dim but enthusiastic princess whose head is full of unicorns and rainbows and whose brow furrows with effort whenever she’s called on to understand anything involving more than, oh, two syllables.
GQ is a hoot as the bastard brother Don John, whose clarion call to funk up Hero’s wedding is absolutely infectious. He’s also a terrific Sheriff Dingleberry, “part pimp, part police”, and part “Shaft” homage. As Claudio, Jackson Doran gives the feckless youth the demeanor of an earnest frat boy. And Postell Pringle is utterly riotous as the prince Don Pedro and as Dingleberry’s flamingly flamboyant lieutenant.
In all, Funk It Up is electric, an hour-long onslaught that combines the best parts of a grooving concert, a rip-roaring good story and a night bopping at the clubs. And as the dj who provides the electronic foundation of all the cunning linguistic gymnastics, Adrienne Sanchez brings the noise and the funk, ensuring that the beat goes on throughout the merry war of words.
All photos by John W. Sisson Jr.
Arroyo’s could use a remix
|American Theatre Company presents|
|Welcome to Arroyo’s|
|by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by Jaime Castaneda
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
thru May 16th | tickets: $35 | more info
reviewed by Barry Eitel
If there was any winner coming out of the recent Pulitzer prize controversy (besides the actual winner, Next to Normal), it would be American Theatre Company. In case you are an actual person and not addicted to theatre blogosphere chatter, basically the Pulitzer Board awarded the prize to a piece that wasn’t a finalist recommended by the Drama Jury. The Jury did, however, recommend Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, (our review ★★★½) which enjoyed plenty of praise for its world premier at Victory Gardens here in Chicago last summer (and I’m kicking myself for missing).
Why does ATC come out on top? Because months ago, they scheduled the world premier of Diaz’s first play, Welcome to Arroyo’s, therefore serendipitously landing upon a bunch of free publicity. And the opening Monday was buzzing with anticipation—perhaps expectations were too high. While Diaz’s earliest play is tons of fun, it is clearly a stepping stone.
Set in 2004 New York City, the play wanders between three plotlines. Mostly, it follows the trials of green entrepreneur Alejandro Arroyo (the gruff but lovable Joe Minoso) as he tries to attract customers to his brand new bar, transformed from his late mother’s bodega. We also watch his sister Amalia (Christina Nieves) practice and protect her art: graffiti. A romantic yet hostile spark flashes between her and, ironically, a police officer (Edgar Miguel Sanchez). Lastly, Lelly Santiago (Sadieh Rifai) complicates everything with her tireless search for a mythic founder of hip hop, Reina Rey—a Puerto Rican woman who might have very intimate connections with the Arroyos.
Diaz’s problem is that neither of these stories have a whole lot of forward motion. In theory, each of the subplots is powerful and thought-provoking, but the play is spread too thin among the three. No through-line has much momentum on its own, and they don’t really push each other that far. Lelly’s pursuit, for example, is engaging, but unfocused. I was never quite sure what she actually wanted or what was in her way. And once Lelly and Alejandro meet up, Diaz’s dialogue falls into a metaphysical hole, becoming far too abstract to keep audience along.
Arroyo’s momentum is ferociously spun forward by the antics of Jackson Doran and GQ, who save the play from drowning in headiness. Respectively playing Trip and Nelson, Arroyo’s in-house MCs, these two serve as narrators, commentators, characters, and clowns. They keep the work fun and fresh with their theatrical hijinks, and they could’ve been used even more.
Even if the play isn’t that brilliant, director Jaime Castaneda and cast do their best to keep the production’s flow swift and funky, like any good hip hop cut. Minoso can be almost childlike in his portrayal of Alejandro, but he keeps his wits about him, especially when he’s interacting with Trip and Nell. Nieves, though sometimes grating, is fun to watch and brings plenty of swagger. Rifai’s Lelly is the least believable, partly due to Diaz’s shaky writing and partly because of Rifai’s overcompensation.
Yes, I’m a white kid from rural Michigan, but I love my hip hop. This is why I was probably so attracted to Diaz’s attention to urban bravado. Arroyo’s is slick, but not afraid to get goofy. Keith Pitts’ stylish set definitely helps. The play has some crucial errors, but it’s a great ride. Diaz and Castaneda have hit on something, they just need to clarify, streamline, and remix. ATC have landed in buzzworthy territory, but the end product calls for some polishing.