Summer Theater Thrives; Recent Reviews

Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Who said theater was dead in the summer? Chicago’s theaters, storefront, midsize and large, have active summer seasons. These are some of the plays I’ve seen and reviewed in the last few weeks. They’re all still running, so you have time to see something wonderful.

Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre

Taylor Mac’s script for Hir (pronounced “here”) is brilliant, wordy and fast-moving. It’s a startling play, as I said in my headline, because the publicity makes you think it’s all about sexuality and gender identity. But it’s about much more than that. Terrific acting and a set that will make you happy to go home to your relatively neat living room. Director Hallie Gordon has some of Chicago’s finest actors to work with and she takes full advantage of their talent in the pacing and mood of this play. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours.

Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum 

Megastasis‘ title is odd and never really explained well in the script, but ignore that, because this play is terrific, terrifying and informative. Yes, really informative. The playwright takes the time to have characters explain what’s happening to young black men because of mandatory minimum sentencing, changes in drug laws, asset forfeiture, and parole restrictions. The story is about Tray, a young man trying hard to make a life for himself and his baby daughter, while living with his grandfather. A couple of small mistakes (like buying a few joints) get him in trouble that results in a long prison term. It’s a wonderful and disturbing human story. My review. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours, one intermission.

Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre

Lela is a woman disrupted and betrayed by the men in her life. It’s an unsettling and searing performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, in a play that the playwright calls a monologue. But the men keep appearing to interrupt her and change the course of her difficult life in an eastern European war zone. Read my review and see this show before it closes on 8/19; running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.

At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre. Photo by Matthew Freer

At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre

My review of At the Table mentions that it might remind you superficially of The Big Chill, but the conversation goes much deeper than that 1983 film. Act one is chatty, sometimes contentious, as we get acquainted with the diverse group of friends. Then, “scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.” You can see At the Table–and you should see it–through 8/26. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.

How to Be a Rock Critic (From the Writings of Lester Bangs) at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre

This is a terrific one-man show where Erik Jensen takes on the persona of iconic rock music critic Lester Bangs and invites us into his messy, drug- and cough-syrup ridden musical nightmare life. I reviewed this with one of my colleagues and we had fun with it. Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, are co-playwrights in this adaptation; she’s the director. They are a formidable pair. Runs only through Saturday 7/29; running time 90 minutes.

The Nance at Pride Films and Plays

There’s a lot of silly burlesque comedy plus bubbly dancing girls in The Nance, but there’s substance too, as my review notes. The story is about a middle-aged gay man who performs “the nance act” at a 1930s New York burlesque theater at a time when the same activity in real life would put him in jail for illegal homosexual activity. It’s a time of change in burlesque theater and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to tell us about the actions of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his licensing commissioner–and the response of the theater community.  Runs through August 13; running time 2.5 hours.

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How I spent my week…theater, art, music

A great theater experience, plus some cartoon art and memories of the Bauhaus. The finishing touch was a Steve Earle concert.  Am I lucky to live in Chicago or what?

Terminus at Interrobang Theatre Project

Mark O’Rowe is one of the new generation of Irish playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1990s. In Terminus, being presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, he displays his fascination with language and his passion for words. Terminus isn’t so much a play as a series of stories, intertwined in monologues by three characters, known only as A, B and C. Their stories, set in the streets of Dublin, begin separately and gradually become more connected, until they are finally merged in a glorious fantasy of blood, sweat, tears and sex. That’s how my review of Terminus begins.  It’s a terrific play with thrilling language.  Truly a treat to listen to. I recommend it highly.

Modern Cartoonist: Daniel Clowes exhibit at MCA

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Daniel Clowes is a well-known graphic novelist, who has published nearly 50 books and magazines. Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes is his current exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which runs until October 13.  The show is beautifully designed and curated and has many lovely little graphic surprises.

It was very interesting to see the progression and process of Clowes’ work, sometimes from sketch through inking and printing.  For some publications, a series of pen and ink on tissue pages was shown. Since so much art today is created on the computer, it’s fascinating to see so many of Clowes’ pages drawn by hand on paper.

Image: Collection of Daniel Clowes. Courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California

Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art

bauhaus2-new-website1It’s been years since I visited this little gem of a museum on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village.  Do not think it’s only about Ukrainian art; it’s really a center for modern and contemporary art.  The Bauhaus exhibit is fabulous and it’s open through this Sunday, September 29. If you are interested in modernism, you don’t want to miss it.

The legacy starts with Lazslo Moholy-Nagy moving to Chicago to establish the US version of the famous German citadel of design.  The Bauhaus’ existence was threatened in the 1930s by Hitler’s aversion to modern art. Moholy-Nagy was followed by other artists and designers who moved to Chicago (including Mies van der Rohe). The New Bauhaus went through many name changes and locations and in 1949 became part of the IIT Institute of Design.

The exhibit includes about 150 pieces by 90 artists and designers.  Work includes painting, sculpture, photography, architecture plans, furniture and design pieces.  A lovely example of the latter is a bar of Dove soap, designed by three students in 1952 as part of a special project funded by Lever Brothers.  Dove still uses the same shape for its soap bars.  (The original carved wooden prototype is on show at the Chicago History Museum.)

In addition to the main exhibit in the west gallery, the east gallery includes Bauhaus work from the institute’s permanent collection. There’s also a very interesting wall that shows the birth and development of the Ukrainian institute.

I’m going to write a feature on the institute for Gapers Block and I’ll provide a link to it here when I do.

Steve Earle at the Vic book2

Steve Earle and the Dukes played a great concert at the Vic Saturday. The setlist included many of his fine old songs as well as tracks from his new album, The Low Highway. His band is made up of four musicians: a drummer, upright bass player, lead guitarist and fiddler/mandolin player.  Earle plays a number of stringed instruments himself (guitar, mandolin, banjo) and sings lead vocals. Many of his songs (and his occasional patter between songs) involve social commentary.  Here are a few lines from the song “The Low Highway.”

Heard an old man grumble and a young girl cry
A brick wall crumble and the white dove fly
A cry for justice and a cry for peace
The voice of reason and the roar of the beast
And every mile was a prayer I prayed
As I rolled down the low highway.

His novel–I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive–is on my reading list and coming up soon.


Smudge, a parent’s bad dream

Ka-Tet Theatre is presenting a very interesting, dark and challenging play at the Athenaeum. Smudge by Rachel Axler is a 90-minute odyssey from ultrasound to reality. Here’s the beginning of my review at gapersblock.com.

It’s a prospective parent’s worst nightmare: Will our baby be perfect? A missing finger or toe and many congenital diseases can be adapted to or treated, but in Smudge, Ka-Tet Theatre asks us to think about how we would deal with an even more dramatic birth–an infant that may not be quite human.

smudge-Ka-Tet-GB“This thing doesn’t need a mother,” Colby (Stevie Chadwick Lambert) says midway through this one-act, 90-minute play. “It’s got tubes.”

— *** —

Please read the review here.  And check out this play for a rewarding evening of theater from one of our interesting small theater companies.

Stevie Chadwick Lambert (with Mr Limbs) and Scott Allen Luke. Photo by Andrew Cioffi