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Theater for two: Kids in search of themselves, and a pop-up polemic that goes off the rails

May 27, 2022 – 2:37 pm
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Reviews: Plays for two actors, known in the theater world as two-handers, make special and perhaps obvious demands on the players, the director and certainly the playwright. Placing the whole burden of a play’s instigation, elaboration and denouement on two speakers is to set a high bar for success, as demonstrated by Gracie Gardner’s “Athena” at Writers Theater and Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” at TimeLine Theatre. The former stumbles when it abandons language for physicality; the latter veers from charm and wit into polemic, wit driven out by cant. “Athena” ★★ “The Chinese Lady” ★★

Fresh feathering of Chekhov’s ‘Seagull’ turns debut of Steppenwolf space into mottled affair

May 21, 2022 – 10:00 am
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Review: There has been a steady stream of English renderings of “The Seagull” since the comedy – Chekhov’s own term – first saw light in 1896. Now Steppenwolf Theatre adds to that catalog with an adaptation created by ensemble member Yasen Peyankov, the opening flourish for the company’s splendid new in-the-round Ensemble Theater in its grand new building next door to the old one on North Halsted. I came away from this “Seagull” – Peyankov has dropped “The” – with mixed impressions from every perspective. ★★

Latino brothers in flight from a white world, eluding death in existential ‘Last Hermanos’

May 18, 2022 – 4:56 pm
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Review: Miguel and his brother Julio are in a bad place, two Latinos on a desperate run from pursuers who want to catch them before they can make it across the border to Mexico and safety. The hunters on their trail may be federal agents, or they could be hired guns, or perhaps even white vigilantes out to expunge the countryside of any and all Latinos. That part is not entirely clear in Exal Iraheta’s gripping play “Last Hermanos.” It really doesn’t matter. Somebody is closing in on the brothers, and their flight has stalled. ★★★★

When rambunctious comedy meets fine cast, all ends well for Bard at Chicago Shakespeare

May 14, 2022 – 9:24 am
Helen (Alejandra Escalante) saves the life of the King of France (Francis Guinan). (All's Well that Ends Well photo by Liz Lauren, CST)

Review: ‘Tis neither fish nor fowl, Shakespeare’s comical-radical and highly problematical play “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Like its main characters, the plot is tormented. Small wonder “All’s Well” has been lumped together with “Measure for Measure,” “Timon of Athens,” “The Merchant of Venice” and a couple of others as “problem” plays. When the rhetorical dust settles and the curtain falls, we’re not quite sure what to feel. But Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “All’s Well” goes a long way toward focusing our ultimate reaction by sharpening the comedy. It’s a very funny show. ★★★★

For seamstress at the end of her thread, love betrays wrinkles, snags in ‘Intimate Apparel’

May 6, 2022 – 9:28 pm
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Review: Director Tasia A. Jones likens Lynn Nottage’s play “Intimate Apparel” to old photographs of ordinary people, Black people, who once lived and loved, who were needful of love, who had hopes and dreams. People who lived and died and disappeared, but whose lives mattered. I might add to that plainly spoken insight the flaws and folly of those folks, as well as their basic goodness. Such are the multifaceted, profoundly human images that register in Northlight Theatre’s magnificent framing of “Intimate Apparel,” as finely crafted a show as I’ve seen on that stage.★★★★★

Wives of Henry VIII reassess a bloody chapter in high-energy, smartly crafted musical ‘Six’

Apr 15, 2022 – 10:47 pm
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Review: A half-dozen descriptors leap to mind as I attempt to describe the musical “Six.” Supercharged, smart, funny, provocative, keen-edged, scintillating, seriously insightful. Oh, wait, that’s more than six. But then “Six” is more than the six characters – the wives of England’s 16th-century King Henry VIII – who give the show its title. It’s greater than the sum of its parts: an infectious show with a youthful vibe that even I, some decades beyond its target audience, would readily go back to enjoy again. ★★★★★

When salesman’s wife confronts his mistress, comedy flashes – and then nobody’s laughing

Apr 2, 2022 – 10:22 am
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Review: On its fragile surface, Eleanor Burgess’ “Wife of a Salesman” appears to be a clever and moderately provocative riff on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” It isn’t exactly a sequel to Miller’s play, but more of an interlude, a sort of off-stage, between scenes flight of fancy: What might have gone down if Willy Loman’s long-suffering wife had confronted some dame with whom he was consorting on his road trips? ★★★

Musical ‘Hadestown,’ updating Orpheus myth, spins dark modernist tale of two dreamy kids

Mar 11, 2022 – 1:54 pm
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Review: To say the musical “Hadestown” puts a bleak, dark modern spin on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice would be quite an understatement. This gritty and cynical, albeit musically ample, show, winding up a tour stop here under the aegis of Broadway in Chicago, sends mixed – if not muddled – messages about human nature while also recentering the story’s tragedy. Thkough “Hadestown” is packed with vivid characters and provocatively edgy songs, taken as a whole, as an existential screed, it doesn’t bear very close scrutiny. ★★★

Variations on faded love and broken hearts: singing universal lyric of ‘Blues in the Night’

Mar 3, 2022 – 12:21 pm
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Review: It’s a down-and-out 1930s hotel populated by a weary and worn-out clientele. The hotel doesn’t have a name, nor do its occupants. Black or white, they’re all in the same familiar boat, adrift late into a never-ending day, just living the song they know so well. These are the denizens of “Blues in the Night,” a sort of jukebox revue staged with existential grit by Porchlight Music Theatre. ★★★★

At TimeLine: ‘Relentless’ measures slavery’s arc from remembered past to the ever present

Feb 25, 2022 – 8:37 pm
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Review: Janet and Annelle, grown daughters of a former slave recently deceased, have traveled from Boston to their birth home in Philadephia to attend to the estate of their late mother, ‘whose remarkable history they are about to discover in an old trunk packed with her diaries. Those vivid accounts of life in the last years of slavery are matched in directness, intelligence and grace by the brilliance of the play that enfolds them, Tyla Abercrumbie’s magnificent “Relentless,” which is winding up its world premiere run at TimeLine Theatre.★★★★★

Goodman’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’: Finding hope for a Black generation in backwave of slavery

Feb 20, 2022 – 11:11 am
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Review: August Wilson was in Chicago in 2003 for the run-up to Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production of “Gem of the Ocean,” the bedrock story of Wilson’s Century Cycle, a dramatized arc of the African American experience decade by decade through the 20th century. I suspect the playwright, who died in 2005 at age 60, would be profoundly content with Goodman’s revival, a keen-eyed and pitch-sensitive perspective on “Gem of the Ocean” directed by Chuck Smith. ★★★★★

All concept and no cattle: This ‘Oklahoma!’ rethinks the musical, shrinking it to a twang

Jan 19, 2022 – 11:01 am
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Review: What is one to make of the musical “Oklahoma!” in the current stripped-down, aggressively modernized and message-laden version that is twanging merrily away at the CIBC Theater? In short, this traveling musical comes across as brashly aggressive in its contemporary aim, yet surprisingly thin on delivery. ★★

‘A Christmas Carol’ at Goodman Theatre:
Taking heartless Scrooge to a reflective place

Dec 7, 2021 – 11:41 am
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Review: After retreating into a pandemic-induced streamed radio drama of “A Christmas Carol” last year, Goodman Theatre has once again thrown open its doors to welcome Chicagoans back to the embrace of visible ghosts and the observable reclamation of that tight-fisted misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge. Of the perennially good and touching accounts of “A Christmas Carol” on that stage, the present one may well be the best. ★★★★★

‘Frozen’ at Broadway in Chicago: Snow queen, snowman (and reindeer) scooped into a treat

Nov 28, 2021 – 10:07 am
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Review: As surely as we need a soul-warming thaw in this long pandemic winter, the glittering and heartily human musical fairytale “Frozen” brings that welcome heat to the Cadillac Palace. An all-out production that dazzles the eye even as it connects with emotional truth, this touring show stamps a capital B on Broadway in Chicago – a clever and generous extravaganza bursting with magical effects, buoyed by terrific singing and driven home by nuanced acting. ★★★★★

‘Fannie’ at Goodman: In narrative and song, recalling the heroism of an unlikely activist

Nov 14, 2021 – 11:01 am
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Review: E. Faye Butler’s one-woman performance as Fannie Lou Hamer, the daring and stalwart champion of Black voting rights in America’s tumultuous 1960s, is rich in memorable vignettes, just as the song-laden show abounds in energy, wit and aspiration. But the interlude that really gets at what the courageous and remarkable woman was about, what she was up against, comes in Butler’s account of a brutal beating Hamer endured at the hands of the police, out of public view and beyond accountability, when she was jailed on flimsy charges that basically stood for her double offense of being Black and pushing for the right of Black people to vote in the United States. ★★★★

‘Remember This’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Strathairn makes Olympian turn in a harsh tale

Nov 12, 2021 – 8:56 am
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Review: The usual term that springs to mind after a performance like David Strathairn’s solitary turn in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” is tour de force. And while the phrase unquestionably applies, it falls hopelessly short. No, Strathairn’s remarkably physical, one well might surmise bruising, grapple with this historical figure – a Polish Roman Catholic who became the deflected messenger of Nazi Germany’s assault on the Jews – is better described as Olympian. ★★★★

‘Othello’ at Court: A tragedy at arm’s length. (Poor Desdemona, exiled to high scaffolding)

Nov 6, 2021 – 1:55 pm
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Review: Kelvin Roston, Jr., in the title role and Timothy Edward Kane as his nemesis Iago make such credible stuff of their desperate psychological contest that one almost forgets how co-directors Gabrielle Randle-Bent and Charles Newell have eviscerated Shakespeare’s play. This pass at “Othello” is a concoction of overwrought stylized mannerisms that ultimately throws away the drama’s tragic consummation. ★★

‘As You Like It’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Plugged into Beatles jukebox, but true to Bard

Nov 4, 2021 – 4:32 pm
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Review: If the byword of staging Shakespeare’s plays is “the text first,” a production that weaves in two dozen Beatles songs, while freely truncating the text, might fall somewhere between a rolling of the dice and a rolling of the eyes. Yet in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s wacky take on “As You Like It,” a stellar company, everybody from actors to designers, has created an irresistible winner that deserves to pack ’em in, well, “Eight Days a Week.” ★★★★

Coalition of key Chicago theaters to require mask plus vaccination proof or negative test

Aug 17, 2021 – 8:44 pm
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Report: A coalition of more than 65 performing arts venues and producers across Chicagoland has announced Covid-19 vaccination and mask requirements for audiences through the end of 2021. The unified Covid protection protocol, which takes effect Sept. 1 for indoor productions, requiries audience members to provide proof of vaccination or negative test certification upon entry and to wear masks.

In his one-man reading of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Halberstam lets Dickens spark the imagination

Dec 30, 2020 – 12:47 pm
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Interview: If actors are vessels for the characters they portray, Michael Halberstam has made of himself a grand repository of the diverse populace – living, deceased, earthly and unearthly – immortalized in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Halberstam, artistic director of Writers Theatre, reads the story all alone in a streamed performance that runs through Jan. 3. He says his account strives to put Dickens’ language at the fulcrum of a charged drama that invokes Spirits, plain folk and a covetous old sinner who has cut himself off from the world.

Larry Yando, Goodman’s beloved Scrooge, created stage in his mind for streaming ‘Carol’

Dec 29, 2020 – 7:47 am
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Interview: At this season of the year when the want of Goodman Theatre’s perennial staging of “A Christmas Carol” is keenly felt, we can still rejoice in the abundance of actor Larry Yando’s gifts as that squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner Scrooge. Constrained by the pandemic, Goodman isolated Yando in an audio booth – with the rest of a large cast similarly separated – for a free streamed production of Dickens’ treasured tale that continues through New Year’s Eve. Yando says it was a joy to be back at it.

Ron Parson, steeped in Wilson’s stagecraft, brings theater perspective to seminar series

Sep 10, 2020 – 2:35 pm
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Preview: Stage director and Court Theatre resident artist Ron OJ Parson has helmed 31 productions of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh plays at theaters around the country. He brings his deep experience with the plays to the final installment in a series of online seminars collectively titled “The World of August Wilson and The Black Creative Voice,” led by University of Chicago professor Kenneth Moore and running through Sept. 29.

‘Kill Move Paradise’ from TimeLine (to you): Streaming from the stage, way outside the box

Apr 2, 2020 – 11:03 am
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Report: Like other theaters across metro Chicago, TimeLine suddenly had to suspend a play in mid-run as the coronavirus crisis descended. But in a fortuitous twist of events, the company can offer the remainder of that run to theater-hungry Chicagoans via streaming.

Stages of Silence: Lyric cancels ‘Ring’ cycle; CSO and Chicagoland theaters also go dark

Mar 14, 2020 – 9:48 am
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Report: It was a day to give Friday the 13th a bad name. Lyric Opera of Chicago made the unavoidable but nonetheless stunning decision to cancel the whole of its long-anticipated cycles through Wagner’s “Ring” tetralogy. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra essentially placed its virtuoso forces on paid leave. Broadway in Chicago shut down its main presentations in the Loop. And one after another, theaters large and small posted immediate stoppage of whatever was on their stages along with cancellation of whatever might be next.

‘Emma’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Sans reason or accountability (or poetry or music)

Feb 28, 2020 – 11:50 am
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Review: Imagine the sharp, slashing repartee between Beatrice and Benedick, in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” if Beatrice brought no intellectual edge to the fray, and you have the eponymous figure in “Emma,” the mildly diverting, perfectly harmless and utterly forgettable musical in mid-flight at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. ★★

‘Bug’ at Steppenwolf: The creepy little spies are everywhere. (But you must look closely.)

Feb 19, 2020 – 3:42 pm
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Review: The first impression of Tracy Letts’ bleakly comic play “Bug” is visual, wordless: a young woman, her back to the audience, stock-still and staring out the open doorway of her dumpy motel room. It’s a telling image. We have just met Agnes, a solitary, empty vessel who’s about to be filled with a surreal and lethal form of paranoia. ★★★

‘Sheepdog’ at Shattered Globe Theatre: When tragedy in black and white dissolves into gray

Feb 18, 2020 – 6:29 pm
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Review: Amina and Ryan are both Cleveland police officers. She’s black, he’s white. They’re good, dedicated cops. They’re also lovers. They’re thinking long term, about having a child together. Then Ryan shoots and kills a young black man, and lies about how it went down. Shattered Globe Theatre’s current, and just extended, production directed by Wardell Julius Clark deals acutely with Artigue’s 90-minute play but cannot create substance greater than time and text allow. ★★★

‘Roe’ at Goodman: Politics of abortion made
all too simple – and leavened with laughter

Feb 4, 2020 – 2:37 pm
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Review: Political theater comes in all shapes and wrappers, but mostly it’s a genre of righteous harangue. Setting aside the not untenable argument that all theater is political, egregiously agenda-driven drama tends to be heavy handed, obvious and dull. The play in immediate view, Lisa Loomer’s “Roe,” on the boards at Goodman Theatre, offers the dubious amusement of a cartoon: over-drawn, simplistic and, alas, laughable. ★★

‘Death Tax’ at Redtwist: Everyone has an angle and all converge at bedside of a dying woman

Jan 6, 2020 – 10:04 pm
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Review: Lucas Hnath’s dark, wry and bitter play “Death Tax” unfolds like a recitation of humankind’s less savory qualities. Duplicity probably tops the list here, but there’s also ample place for avarice, covetousness, vanity and exploitative guilt. Remarkably enough, this brilliant 90-minute descent into the lower depths of human behavior is as fascinating as it is dismaying – and it’s imbued with visceral truth by a wholly immersed, intimate ensemble at Redtwist Theatre. ★★★★

‘Rutherford and Son’ at TimeLine: A tyrant
and some children, all grown and all bruised

Dec 30, 2019 – 10:11 pm
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Review: Old man Rutherford sees the world as a reflection of himself, and he measures and values everyone in it, starting with his family, on a scale of their loyalty to him and their usefulness to the business enterprise that has consumed his life. Imagine being his son – the subordinate, emotionally shackled element in “Rutherford and Son,” playwright Githa Sowerby’s grinding examination of early 20th-century British industrialism and its social ethos, which now storms the stage with withering force at TimeLine Theatre. ★★★★★