Articles in Theater + Stage
Report: Steppenwolf Theatre unveiled plans March 5 for a new state-of-the-art theater building, the heart of a $73 million renovation project that ultimately will include remodeling of the company’s current main-stage theater. The new building is expected to open in summer 2021. “This is a monumental moment for us that is more than two decades in the making,” said artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, adding that the expansion plan is “built on the shoulders of the former leaders, the ensemble, the board, and the staff who have touched this project and together have made this vision a reality.”
Review: Li’l Bit was just 11 years old when she got her first driving lesson from her Uncle Peck. He pulled her onto his lap and showed her how to place her hands on the steering wheel.at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Then Uncle Peck placed his hands in roughly the same positions on L’il Bit. In Paula Vogel’s bruised-memory play “How I Learned to Drive,” the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama now on cringe-inducing display at Raven Theatre, Li’l Bit grows to young womanhood in the caring, caressing hands of her devoted Uncle Peck, a pedophile. ★★★
Review: It’s 1927, and the veteran blues singer Ma Rainey – or Madame Rainey, as she prefers – is the imperious queen of her realm. The black songstress has been around, and she doesn’t take any grief from anybody, including white folks. Brash trumpeter Levee, who’s playing a Chicago recording session with Rainey, is still finding his way. He’s young, gifted and black. And deeply angry. These two are the fire and ice of August Wilson’s towering tragedy “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now in the sure hands of director Ron OJ Parson and a stellar cast at Writers Theatre. ★★★★★
Review: JB Priestley’s classic “An Inspector Calls,” a noir thriller as morality tale, has been around for seven decades, and was made into a film in 1954. But director Stephen Daldry’s laser-focused staging with the National Theatre of Britain, now on view at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a masterpiece of ensemble acting wrapped in a brilliant concept that makes the play feel deliciously fresh, newly and wickedly biting. ★★★★★
Review: Fifteen years after Nora Helmer famously – or perhaps infamously – walks out on husband and children at the end of Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” what do you know but she’s back, knocking on that same door, and not exactly bonnet in hand. Indeed, Nora has found great success as a writer. What an intriguing conceit for the sequel Lucas Hnath has ventured in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” now at Steppenwolf. Except that I came away with the distinct sense that Nora, the woman of the hour, was missing. ★★
Review: Kate Hunter is terrified, desperate, hanging on by her fingernails. Her adolescent daughter ran away three years ago, and finally Kate has a lead to the girl’s seclusion in a cult – even a glimmer of hope that on this day, all may end well. That’s why, in Steven Dietz’s thriller “On Clover Road,” we find Kate holed up in a dilapidated motel room with a brusque, imperious de-programmer who claims he’s experienced at reeling kids back from the abyss. It’s a heart-stopping encounter at American Blues Theater. ★★★★
Review: Omari is 16, maybe 17 years old and he’s in serious trouble. He’s black, a bright kid, from good people. They send O – everybody calls him O – to a private school. But the boy is deeply angry, and now he’s facing expulsion from school, and maybe much worse, for assaulting a teacher. This the perilous crux of Dominique Morisseau’s play “Pipeline,” on gripping display at Victory Gardens Theater. ★★★★
Review: There is one great scene and another that’s at least charming in Hansol Jung’s play “Cardboard Piano,” now occupying the stage at TimeLine Theatre. But all told, this dramatic parable about the intolerance of homosexuality in Uganda limps from adolescent fantasy to a second act that is more contrived than compelling. ★★
Preview: The mid-winter is far from bleak under Chicago’s theater marquees. Steppenwolf offers Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sort of what-if sequel to Ibsen’s play. Lookingglass runs out the premiere of Kareem Bandealy’s ‘Act(s) of God,” a cosmic guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner. And Chicago Shakespeare revisits the Bard’s melancholy prince – ever perched on the existential fence between being and nothingness.
Review: If you’re a serious theater buff, go directly to the Northlight schedule of performances for Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” and find a night that works for you. This disarming play-with-song about the great jazz and blues singer’s conversion to black activist – but more than that, about black women in their skin – is simply not to be missed. ★★★★★
Review: Griffin wants to have a baby. Problem is, he doesn’t even have a girlfriend. He would adopt, but that raises another problem: his criminal record. Well, not strictly a criminal record, but he did a good stretch of time. Griffin’s conundrum is the core, the tease, the red herring of Christina Anderson’s delightful and touching new play “How to Catch Creation,” now in its world premiere run at Goodman Theatre. ★★★★
Review: Anna Ziegler’s play “Photograph 51,” now precisely imaged on stage at Court Theatre, is a high-intensity portrait of Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who played a key role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA – but was omitted from the picture when the men around her received the Nobel Prize for that landmark breakthrough. It is, alas, a preachy play, narrow and agenda-driven. ★★★
Review: The latest installment in Ike Holter’s now six-play saga of the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Rightlynd is part social commentary, part inside-theater sendup. From all angles, it is smartly written – provocative, witty and taut. “Red Rex” takes its title from a Rightlynd storefront theater, a struggling enterprise that finally may get over the hump with a compelling new play devised by the company’s resident playwright Lana. Devised, as in borrowed and adapted. There’s the rub. ★★★
Review: No small part of what makes any season at Chicago Shakespeare Theater distinctive and intriguing is its annual bundle of imported shows. The visiting productions are often diminutive and typically off-beat, not just novel but beguilingly imaginative. Two such instances of theater writ small now occupy spaces at CST: “L’après-midi d’un foehn,” literally an air ballet of plastic shopping bags set to Debussy’s music, and “Us/Them,” the perspective of two children on a terrorist invasion of their school. ★★★/★★★
Review: Pops is a retired black New York cop – retired because he got thoroughly shot up by a fellow cop (white) while Pops was off-duty at an unsavory watering hole. But he gets along well enough in his rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment, which he shares with a son who’s into some shady business and a slow-witted, adoring young ex-con. That’s the frame, the border around the stress points, of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulizer Prize-winning play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which enjoys a detailed, charged and mesmerizing go-round in the tiny arena that is Redtwist Theatre. ★★★★
Preview: Chicago’s turn into real winter comes with the consolation of intriguing theater just ahead. Think of it as warming countermeasures. Porchlight offers the musical farce “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” while Raven plots Paula Vogel’s now-classic memory play “How I Learned to Drive.” American Blues jumps into the season’s second half with Steven Dietz’s “On Clover Road.” If a play synopsis that begins “At an abandoned motel on a desolate road” sounds more like a chiller, at least it will unfold in a snug place.
Review: It turns out vampires are real. Who knew? Anyway, the veracity of vampires is the central proposition of Conor McPherson’s one-man play “St. Nicholas,” now meandering across the boards at Goodman Theatre. I suspect the greatest allure of this dubious enterprise, brought to Chicago by London’s Donmar Warehouse, is the presence of Brendan Coyle – yes, the same Mr. Bates of “Downton Abbey” – as the nameless monologist. ★★
Preview: The Chicago theater scene enters its snow-to-blossoms segment with a flurry of highlights that we’ll glimpse in a three-part series of winter-spring previews. In early prospect are Goodman Theatre’s world premiere of Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation,” Ike Holter’s “Red Rex” at Steep and Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Northlight.
Review: “The Lightning Thief,” a musical making a lightning pass through Chicago as the launch point of a national tour, is a charming, off-beat coming-of-age show. It’s something of a graphic novel for the stage – colorful, energetic, simpler than its busyness makes it seem. Still, in its benign fashion, “The Lightning Thief” proves agreeable enough, if a bit overwrought and underdone in the end. ★★★
Review: TUTA Theatre Company has forged its reputation by introducing audiences to unusual theatrical fare drawn largely from Eastern and Western European playwrights. The company has been more or less itinerant. But for the next month or so, if you venture into its newest, tiny (25-seat) storefront in a hidden corner of the Ravenswood neighborhood, you will spend 70 absolutely riveting minutes experiencing the U.S. premiere of Maxim Dosko’s “Radio Culture.” ★★★★
Review: Actor Mike Nussbaum will turn 95 in December (no, that is not a typo), and he is now delivering such a towering performance in the Northlight Theatre production of Rachel Bonds’ play, “Curve of Departure,” that you might easily be persuaded he is simply a supremely talented actor impersonating an old man.★★★
Fifth in a series of season previews: It’s easy to pick five shows for a season, says Shattered Globe Theater artistic director Sandy Shinner. But settling on just three plays, which is a full plate for this plucky little company: That, says Shinner, is tricky. The trio of plays in view at Shattered Globe this season bears a collective stamp of philosophical discourse in dramatic form.
Fourth in a series of season previews: Fifteen years into its venture of creating high-voltage drama in a really small space, Redtwist Theatre will roll out its first production ever by the Bard of Avon. And what else would you choose for a first leap into Shakespeare on a postage-stamp stage but “King Lear”?
Third in a series of season previews: Court Theatre will cap its 64th season – and artistic director Charles Newell’s 24th year at the helm — with the world premiere adaptation of Saul Bellow’s novel “The Adventures of Augie March,” and kick it off with August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” the tenth and final installment in his chronicle of the African American experience.
Second in a series of season previews: TimeLine Theatre launches its 22nd season from the company’s familiar, Janus-faced perspective on historical events: seeing human events of the past in the mirror of the continuing present. “We are, first and foremost, theater makers,” says artistic director PJ Powers. “But we use the lens of history to provide social context.” TimeLine opens its season with Barbara Lebow’s post-Holocaust drama “A Shayna Maidel.”
First in a series of season previews: Michael Halberstam, founding artistic director of the 27-year-old Writers Theatre, looks back on the company’s first two full seasons in its new Glencoe home as “a very exciting journey, and with this season we feel we’ve really found the right mix for both of our versatile spaces.”
Review: Eugêne Ionesco’s play about dying, “Exit the King,” generally comes under the rubric of absurdist drama. But that tag doesn’t really fit the play. If a label is required, perhaps “figurative” – certainly, existential. An absorbing and quite affecting account at American Players Theatre rings with truth about that juncture in life where few arrive gladly: its end. ★★★★
Review: It’s a trifecta for women, two in traditional roles and another in a first for me: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. Melisa Pereyra and Andrea San Miguel portray BFF Rosalind and Celia – and, in a stunning gender shift, Tracy Michelle Arnold appears as the cynical philosopher Jaques. ★★★★
Interview: Zachary Stevenson slips into the persona of Buddy Holly like the early rocker’s doppelgänger in American Blues Theatre’s extended run of the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” by Alan Janes. Stevenson says he feels that identity – now. But back when he first landed the part, more than a decade and some 12 productions ago in Toronto, it was a different story.
Review: Despite a rather heavy application of angst, the true face of poignancy emerges in Penelope Skinner’s “Linda,” a dramatic screed at Steep Theatre on women, beauty and the cumulative unkindness of years. Kendra Thulin reels through the title role, one moment a confident and successful marketer of beauty products, the next moment a has-been who watches the world, fashion and relevance all pass by, leaving her bereft in life’s seventh age, sans everything. ★★★