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 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.
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.
This will be a quick post before I leave for nine days of travel. When I return, I’ll have plenty of notes for my next essay. For now, here are a few things you won’t want to miss.
George Orwell’s 1984 at Steppenw0lf Theatre
This is a production of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which basically means high-school-age youngsters. This is a heady play, very thought-provoking and extremely well done. As my review headline says, Steppenwolf recreates the dystopian past and strongly suggests dystopia still threatens us. My grandson James and I reviewed it and we both loved it. He has read the book and so was eager to see how it played out on stage. Here’s our review. The play is targeted at school groups so the weekend performance schedule is brief. I strongly encourage you to see it before it closes November 20.
Wim Wenders retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center
You can see some of the great films by this German master at the Siskel Film Center. The retrospective opened earlier this month but there are still some great films in store in the next few weeks, such as Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films of all time), Paris, Texas, and Until the End of the World. Here’s my preview of the retrospective.
The Siskel gallery is also showing a nice exhibit of film posters titled Wenders and the New German Cinema.
Stagestruck City exhibit at the Newberry Library
The Newberry has created a marvelous exhibit from its plentiful archives of Chicago theater history. The exhibit tells the story of Chicago theater from before the 1871 fire and brings it to the opening of the Goodman Theatre in the 1920s. I described the exhibit here. Fascinating and scholarly, not flashy and animated, the exhibit runs through December 31. Don’t miss the Newberry bookstore while you’re there; it’s one of our better bookstores, and deserves our appreciation in this era of the demise of real bookstores.
Going to the theater is a treat that never grows old for me. Here are some of the plays I’ve seen recently, most of which were excellent.
The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre
This is a captivating production and a perfect example of the rich quality of Chicago storefront theater. Great direction, great acting, great staging. It’s a 70-minute play and you will enjoy every minute. Here’s how my review begins:
“The stage is set. Three claw-footed bathtubs. The kind your grandmother had. Props: Three scrub buckets, newspapers and a tea set. Costumes: Bridal gowns and veils, usually sopping wet.
“If this doesn’t sound like a promising start for a night at the theater, The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre will quickly change your mind. The play is a beautifully performed, balletic story of an English serial killer in the 19th century, who swindled from and then drowned his three wives. Actually, it’s the entrancing story of the three wives, who perform all the parts in the play from the brides submerged in their tubs to the husband(s), parents, lawyers, judge, reporters and scrubwomen.”
You can see The Drowning Girls through June 6. Signal is at 1802 W. Berenice, near the intersection of Irving Park and Ravenswood. See my review for details.
Three Sisters at The Hypocrites
Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets an excellent production from the always-interesting Hypocrites. It’s a fairly traditional staging except the color palette is used in a very inventive way. Director Geoff Button adapted the script to use more contemporary language without trivializing it. My review describes the story this way:
“The eponymous Prosorov sisters lead the excellent 14-person cast in a story that progresses over several years in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. The sisters, all in their 20s, yearn to move back to Moscow, which they left 11 years ago when their father assumed the command of a brigade in the rural area. Now their father is dead and the town (and their social life) is dominated by the presence of the military base and its officers.”
The play is 2 hours, 20 minutes, and runs through June 6 in the Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
Side Man at American Blues Theater
This is a fine production of Warren Leight’s Tony-award winning play, Side Man. It was first produced at Steppenwolf in the 1999-2000 season and I tried to keep that excellent production out of my thoughts and not let it affect my review of this production. This is a memory play about the jazz musicians—trumpet players—who were riding high in the 1940s and ‘50s before the rise of rock and roll. The story focuses on the career and family of one particular side man. His son takes us back and forth in time from the moment his parents met through their present difficult period.
Side Man runs two hours and continues through May 24 at American Blues Theater, staged at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue. There’s live jazz played on stage before the performance begins.
Between You, Me and the Lampshade at Teatro Vista
This new play about immigration and family issues by Raul Castillo runs through this Sunday at Victory Gardens/Biograph Richard Christiansen Theater (the upstairs space at VG). The 100-minute play (with one intermission) is well written with lively dialogue. My Gapers Block review says:
“Between You, Me and the Lampshade is an entertaining and poignant story told by an excellent cast under the capable direction of artistic director Ricardo Gutierrez. Original music and sound design by Victoria Deiorio create an authentic sound landscape for the story. Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scene design is very much an aging trailer interior, including the turquoise kitchen.”
I recommend it. Take Mom on Sunday. Or take yourself.
Ghost Gardens at Chicago Dramatists
Ghost Gardens, a new play by Steven Simoncic, explores “how people in a dying community fight to overcome grief, illness, hopelessness, and air poisoned by a giant local corporation.” The play, set in Detroit, has certain charms and a couple of good performances, but it can’t overcome the fact that the script is rambling and disjointed. I wish I could recommend it. My Gapers Block review is here.
Ghost Gardens continues through May 31 at Chicago Dramatists on Chicago Avenue near Milwaukee.
The Herd at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The Herd by Rory Kinnear is a story about several generations of an English suburban family who have a severely disabled child. The play looks at how different generations deal with the issues of parenthood and disability. Frank Galati directs an excellent cast of mostly Steppenwolf ensemble members, including John Mahoney, Lois Smith, Molly Regan and Francis Guinan. The writing is witty and tender and gets to the heart of these family matters. I didn’t review this, but you can check out other reviews here.
Running time for The Herd is 100 minutes. You can see it—and you should—until June 7.
My review of This Is Modern Art, the new Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, went live on Gapers Block Monday night, soon after the scathing reviews by the two daily newspaper critics had been posted or published. I was surprised at the level of criticism in the two reviews—not criticism of the play itself, but of the theater for producing it at all.
This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is the story of the crew of young graffiti writers who decide they need to define “modern art” on their own terms and so they paint a “piece” (short for masterpiece) on the east wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute. The event actually took place five years ago. In the play, the artists are shown at a party where an art student brags about attending the opening of the Modern Wing and seeing all the masterpieces plus “everybody in the art world.” Clearly Seven (the leader of the crew) knows his art history, but he says “We only paint everywhere else, because they won’t let us paint inside.”
The play acknowledges the illegality of graffiti writing—and also distinguishes between gang graffiti (usually tags) and the street art created by the graffiti writers. Among the criticisms of the play is that it sends the wrong messages to young people. This is a really offensive argument for young people, who do not see themselves as naïve and malleable to suggestion. As my grandson said, “Yeah, I liked the play a lot but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and buy spray paint and write on walls.”
In my review, I commented, “Was what happened an act of vandalism or important artistic commentary? The question deserves to be addressed. The script and the characters acknowledge that they are committing an illegal act. But the important message the play articulates is that art shouldn’t be confined to elite galleries and museums with $18 admission tickets. The graffiti writers are artists shouting to be seen and heard. They demand visibility in a society that decrees them invisible–as artists and as individuals.
Twitter commenters noted, “If you see a Shakespeare or McDonagh drama, do you criticize the artists for glorifying/condoning murder?” And “Does anyone try to ban the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’ because Francis Underwood commits murder to get ahead?” The reviews by the Tribune and Sun-Times critics received their share of Twitter snark. Trust me. It wasn’t pretty.
I have written frequently about street art and post-street art (see Related Posts below) and I find the genre fascinating and vibrant. I wouldn’t want to shut it down. But I agree that I wouldn’t want to wake up one morning and find my house (if I had a house) covered with graffiti. The play also differentiates between “permission walls,” where an owner or a community invites artists to write on or paint walls. This would cover some of the paintings in highway and railroad underpasses that have been sponsored by local communities. Some graffers are happy to be able to show their art on permission walls, while to others, the risk is the drug that fuels their creativity. In any case, I believe they ought to be able to paint public walls and abandoned spaces.
And the Art Institute should have left the “modern art” masterpiece on its east wall for a few days instead of immediately calling in the graffiti blasting crew. And most importantly, Steppenwolf should have commissioned a “piece” for the south wall of their building, to be displayed at least during the run of this thought-provoking play. That would have been a meaningful way for the theater to make a statement supporting their production.
See my review of This Is Modern Art and go to Twitter and search #thisismodernart or @kevincoval to see the commentary about the play.
Let me know what you think about this issue. Who gets to make art and where should it be shown? Please comment below.
I’ve seen five plays in the last two weeks. Most of them are provocative and well-produced gems from small theater companies, generically called storefronts, although they may well be in warehouses, church basements, behind restaurants or in old neighborhood centers. They’re by far the best theater bargains in Chicago and often demonstrate quality superior to the more high-profile theaters. Here are my theater picks for today.
Vatzlav at Trap Door Theatre
Yes, I’m always raving about this company, which produces plays mostly by eastern European dramatists. I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents. Their current show, Vatzlav by Slawomire Mrozek, pokes fun both at capitalism and authoritarian governments. Vatzlav, a former slave, is saved from an ocean disaster when he lands on a magical island where inexplicable things happen. The inhabitants include a blind old man named Oedipus, a youth who turns into a bear, a roving ukulele player, and the rich couple who own the island. Don’t try to make sense out of it; just enjoy it. The set is simple and the costumes as usual are brilliant and colorful.
Playwright Mrozek died last August in France. He was often referred to as the Polish Ionesco and his work is compared to that of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Vatzlav runs thru May 24 at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland.
Director Beata Pilch, whose bio says she was born in the Polish district of Chicago, is founder and artistic director of Trap Door. The company has been invited to Poland to work with Teatr Witkacy and they’re raising funds for the trip. You can donate here.
The Doll’s House Project: Ibsen Is Dead at Interrobang Theatre Project
Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, published in 1879 and premiered in English in 1889, is now considered a groundbreaking piece of modern drama. It explores gender politics, scandals and marital relationships, and it brought realism to theater, when most were staging traditional costume drama. Calamity West’s new play is inspired by Ibsen’s but it’s not an adaptation. Nora in the original is the first dissatisfied housewife—84 years before Bette Friedan’s book explained the problem to us.
In the new version, Nora is a stay-at-home housewife, dominated by her successful husband Torvald, who doles out her allowance sparingly and monitors her activities. Her main job is recreational shopping. So far, like Ibsen. The new play is set in Manhattan in 1989 on the day the Berlin Wall fell. An old friend of Nora’s arrives to visit and the play veers away from the Ibsen version. The memories and tensions between Nora and Christine are the highlight of the play, while Torvald and the neighbor doctor circle around them and spar over Nora’s affections. The performers are excellent and director Jim Yost keeps the 90-minute play snapping along. The script still needs some work; there are parts that are slow and some of the dialogue seems dated.
The idea of Nora as a rich stay-at-home wife was dated in 1989, unless you moved in the circles of high-powered lawyers, financiers and consultants. In those worlds (where I worked as a marketing minion in those years), the rich stay-at-home dabbler wife was the standard. I met dozens of them at partner meetings. I couldn’t figure out how they spent their time. Recreational shopping, most likely.
The Doll’s House Project runs thru June 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Cock at Profiles Theatre
Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear over internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.
The setting is London in the present but the set mimics a small arena where cock-fighting might take place. The floor is covered with fake gravel; the arena is surrounded by a low iron wall. The characters frequently take positions at opposite sides, as if about to face off. In the first half, new scenes are signaled with a bell like the start of a new boxing round; after blackouts, the characters open new scenes in attack pose. The set design and the production vigorously directed by Darrell Cox make clear that the title refers to several meanings of the word, including adult male chickens and gunlocks, in addition to the male anatomy.
The actors create an intense atmosphere, which is enhanced by the intimate space. (The audience sits in tiered wooden stalls with cushions provided at the door.) The semi-comfortable seats and the tension among characters mean that 80 minutes is about the most one can tolerate of this drama that forces John to, finally, make a choice.
Cock runs thru June 29 at Profiles Theatre, 4139 N Broadway.
The Way West at Steppenwolf Theatre
Mona Mansour’s play seems to celebrate America’s pioneer spirit and our western expansion, but ends up in personal bankruptcies in 21st century Los Angeles. The family members—a mother and two daughters—have each in her own way found a way to financial ruin. Mom just quit paying her bills, is ignoring her illness, and believes everything will be ok. The older daughter has taken time off from her job in Chicago to help her mom sort thru her records and file bankruptcy. Her younger sister cares for her mother and has gone from job to job; she is in much the same financial shape as her mother. The older sister at first seems like the responsible one, but after she loses her job (learning about it by voice mail), everything falls apart for her too.
The story line is right out of 2008 and could be stronger with a more tightly edited script. The unfortunate musical interludes with western songs by the mother, accompanied by her daughters on guitars, are strange breaks in the action that just don’t work. (The wagon train and campfire projections behind the performers only increase the silliness.)
The Way West runs two hours plus intermission and can be seen thru June 8 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. It’s one of the few times in my 20+ years as a Steppenwolf subscriber that I’ve been disappointed by a production.
More theater news: Expansion project for The Den Theatre and The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites, one of my favorite small theaters, will be leaving their claustrophobic basement space at Chopin Theatre and moving into a new space nearby on Milwaukee avenue that’s being taken over by The Den Theatre. The Den, another of my faves, currently has several performance spaces at 1333 N Milwaukee over a large empty retail space. They’re taking over that space and it will be the new home of The Hypocrites. It’s a great story for Chicago theater and for the Wicker Park neighborhood. You can read more about it in my article at Gapers Block.