Articles in Theater + Stage
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. ★★★
Review: Ernest Hemingway was, in flesh and blood, a man’s man, the willful and danger-defiant sort we associate with the fantastical, celluloid John Wayne. He also shared a trait in common with many another towering artist: For all his exterior magnificence, he was troubled, depressive, vulnerable. It’s the compleat Hemingway, fierce and brilliant, tormented and alcoholic, that playwright Jim McGrath attempts to sketch and actor Stacy Keach embodies in “Pamplona,” now on display at Goodman Theatre. ★★
Review: At age 19, an unknown Elvis Aaron Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ recording studio in Memphis and uttered the legendary words that really should be his epitaph. Asked who he sounded like, he replied: “I don’t sound like nobody.” Neither does Eddie Clendening, star of the Elvis bio musical “Heartbreak Hotel” at the Broadway Playhouse, sound like nobody (the double negative is au courant, so it’s cool). Time may have been when Clendening’s voice resembled Elvis’ – back when he played him as part of the “Million Dollar Quartet” at Goodman Theatre in 2008. I never saw that production. But here we are, a decade later. ★
Review: The first flourish of Ellen Fairey’s play “Support Group for Men,” now on display at Goodman Theatre, works twofold narrative magic: It creates a deceptively rich context, and it’s just plain deceptive. We think we’re in for a night with the boys as sitcom when the truth is we’re in for a theatrical ride as clever as it is gentle and poignant and authentic. ★★★★
Review: Surely the first thing that will come to mind for many viewers in the opening scene of Jen Silverman’s play “The Roommate” at Steppenwolf Theatre is “The Odd Couple” – recreated here for two middle-aged women. Sharon is a dowdy Iowa mom living alone who takes in worldly New Yorker Robyn, who’s looking to get away from it all for a while. But “The Odd Couple” it is not. Silverman’s drama is ultimately tragic, and desperately sad. ★★★
Review: After Lookingglass Theatre’s roundly imaginative and engaging 2015 production of Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” one might have expected Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” to fare no less well, indeed to fall right into the Lookingglass wheelhouse. Sorry, mates. The best thing to be said for this production, adapted by David Kersnar and Steve Pickering and directed by Kersnar, is that it finally gives us a proper translation of Verne’s original French title. It’s the saga of a road trip, as nefarious as it is long, under the seas. ★★
Review: In your face is probably not the right way to describe the close-up experience of watching Bennett Fisher’s taut, harrowing new play “Damascus” in Strawdog Theatre’s cozy new home. Eye to unblinking eye would be more accurate. As Somali-born Hassan drives his van down the highway from the Minneapolis airport toward Chicago, with a mysterious young white man as his passenger, news of a terrorist attack back at the airport comes over the radio. We viewers gaze straight at the two men through the van’s windshield. The increasingly anxious travelers stare right back at us. ★★★★
Review: Hero is strong young slave in the 1860s South who finds himself agonizing over an option: Accept his owner’s proposition to accompany him into the war against the Yankees, in exchange for his subsequent freedom, or remain behind as a slave for the rest of his life. That’s the setup of Suzan-Lori Parks’ epic and very human play “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” now on smart, provocative and impassioned display at Goodman Theatre under the direction of Niegel Smith. ★★★★
Preview: If the novelty has worn off the new stage at American Players Theatre, which with its trap-laden floor opened last summer amid general euphoria, the charm can now begin to work its magic. Or, as APT artistic director Brenda DeVita put it: “Last year, everybody wanted to use the traps, and this year nobody’s using them. Everyone is now settling into the new place as home.” American Players’ 2018 season opens June 16 in Spring Green, Wis., with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
Review: Sam Shepard’s darkly funny tale is not so much about the decline of an American way of life as it is about us humans losing sight of ourselves in a blur of treachery, self-denial and retribution that threatens to extend through the generations backward and forward. As directed by Kimberly Senior in a superb production, Shepard’s realm is a ramshackle pasture of the heart, where truths too painful to confess refuse to stay buried no matter how much mind-numbing alcohol, or sexual abandon or vagabondage are applied. ★★★★
Review: Like Tennessee Williams’ iconic play “The Glass Menagerie,” his later, more concise and certainly more curious “Suddenly, Last Summer” involves the perspective of memory. But the reliability – indeed, the truthfulness – of memory lies at the horrific heart of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” which now spreads its gothic wings over the stage at Raven Theatre. Despite the production’s clear narrative, the playwright’s lyricism is muted behind Southern accents. ★★★
Review: The Greek myth of Prometheus, who rashly gave the gift of fire to humankind and endured severe punishment for it, was the basis of Aeschylus’ fifth-century B.C. drama “Prometheus Bound,” which City Lit Theater has revived in a puppet-enhanced staging. It’s the world premiere of a new translation by Nicholas Rudall, the University of Chicago classics scholar who was the founding artistic director of Court Theatre. ★★
Review: Samuel Beckett was Irish by birth but a naturalized existentialist of the French line whose most famous native son remains Jean-Paul Sartre. Watching the Irish theater company Druid perform Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – at once vivid and bleak, its characters dithering and hobbled and resigned to their absurd circularity – I couldn’t help thinking of Sartre’s “No Exit.” ★★★★★
Review: Everything about John Strand’s play “The Originalist,” a philosophical profile of the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia now on the boards at Court Theatre, recommends the enterprise as a one-man show. The positive side of that is Edward Gero’s expansive, assured and piquant performance as Scalia. On the shadowed side of “everything” I mean, well, everything else about this contrived and tormented attempt to turn what is essentially fascinating and funny stand-up into high drama. ★★
Review: In a different setting, Steve, an anonymous immigrant from Rwanda working as a dishwasher in an ordinary New York eatery, knows well enough how to use a knife. But when a master chef, or what’s left of him after the ravages of alcoholism, takes charge of the kitchen, the quiet dishwasher is drawn out by the elegant appeal of culinary art. That’s the setup of Will Snider’s wry and unsettling play “How to Use a Knife,” offered in a savory preparation by Shattered Globe Theatre and director Sandy Shinner. ★★★★★
Review: I’ve always loved “Grand Hotel,” since I first saw the 1932 film with its incredible all-star cast that only begins with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. In 1989, the film, based on a novel by Vicki Baum and a play by William A. Blake, was transmuted quite successfully into the musical that Kokandy Productions now offers in a concept and cast that get right at the poignant heart of the story. ★★★★