Articles in Theater + Stage
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. ★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★
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. ★★★★
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. ★★
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.” ★★★★
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ★★
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. ★★★
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. ★★★
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. ★★
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. ★★★★
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. ★★★★★
Review: A familiar face and voice in many roles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago over the years, the legendary soprano combines warm singing and strong acting in her role as an American mother on holiday in Florence with a daughter who’s ready for love but is more fragile than she knows. The new production of this 2005 Tony Award winner started out in London and moves on to Sydney, Australia in the New Year. ★★★
Review: As we sit in Hyde Park’s Court Theatre arena, where Sophocles’ ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” unfolds, the audience becomes part of an urgent thriller. Actors prowl the aisles, murmuring that our city Thebes is sinking under “waves of death.” The explanation for this plague and pestilence? Unknown. The king accepts his citizens’ desperate plea to figure out what’s going on, but as he looks into it, he finds evidence pointing to himself. ★★★★
Review: Over the last dozen of the scores of Christmases that Goodman Theatre has revisited Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” much of the magic surely has centered in the person of Larry Yando. Hehas essentially become Ebenezer Scrooge for the faithful thousands who make this Yuletide pilgrimage of wonder and delight and epiphany. ★★★★
Interview: Julia Siple thought she knew the “black sheep” character she plays in Lucy Kirkwood’s “Mosquitoes” at Steep Theatre. But in the refining process of rehearsals, Siple discovered that erratic and often outrageous Jenny – who’s also not the sharpest knife in the family drawer – had another, deeply appealing side to her: a tremendous sense of empathy.
Review: The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Sunset Boulevard” won a slew of Tony Awards when it was rolled out on Broadway in 1995, some 45 years after the Billy Wilder film on which it is based had captured a bunch of Academy Award nominations and claimed a few minor ones. I acknowledge these aging triumphs up front because, to my mind, this show, now rather curiously revisited by Porchlight Music Theatre, has come to look as quaint and limited as the silent-film era that its faded, tragic star yearns to relive. ★★
Review: Alice and Jenny are sisters in name only, or so it might seem, in Lucy Kirkwood’s play “Mosquitoes,” now on fascinating exhibit at Steep Theatre. Alice is a physicist, an acorn fallen not far from the twin oaks of her father (deceased) and her mother (still living). Jenny is not a physicist; she probably couldn’t spell the word. Funny, the binding power of blood. ★★★★
Review: The sleeper don’t-miss show of Chicago’s autumn theater season falls under the perhaps inauspicious heading of Steppenwolf’s Young Adult series. Make no mistake, the emphasis here is on “adult,” and Steppenwolf’s superbly cast and directed – indeed, choreographed – staging of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size” is exquisite theater that will reward the most experienced drama buff. ★★★★★
Review: The 90-minute distillation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” now on display at Writers Theatre is a fast ride to a shattering finish – an emotional grinder that goes instantly and unflinchingly to the core of this still-remarkable story of a woman’s painful self-discovery, and it never lets up. ★★★★★
Review: One might describe J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” as a historical feel-good play, the historical happy outcome of which didn’t last very long. It’s a process drama that depicts the secret (verbal) slug-out in 1993 between representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in a valiant effort to bring peace to the Middle East. The production created by TimeLine Theatre and co-produced by Broadway in Chicago is tightly wound and well acted, but it cannot escape the play’s strait-jacketed narrative or rise above the fact that none of this feels especially compelling a quarter-century on. ★★
Review: In early 1899, at the heady height of her dizzying fame, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt reopened a Paris theater she had acquired and renamed after herself. Almost immediately, this ever controversial star was upsetting norms again by playing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That audacious gambit reimagined is the stuff of Theresa Rebeck’s plainly titled play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” now on semi-satisfying view at Goodman Theatre. ★★
Review: Of the 10 plays that make up August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade by decade series of tableaux depicting the African American experience through the 20th century, “King Hedley II” may be the least familiar to theater audiences. But this grim, ultimately crushing drama is by no means the least potent. Witness Court Theatre’s knock-out production featuring a stellar cast under the wise direction of Ron OJ Parson. ★★★★★