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Wednesday, 04 March 2015 00:00

Review: This Is Modern Art

Five years ago, anonymous graffiti artists caused quite the hubub at the Modern Wing of the Chicago Art Institute when they "bombed" a major wall of the wing. Their message was clear: THIS is modern art. While a clever, powerful statement, and seemingly jabbing at the art that resides within the walls of the modern art wing, it presents a paradox: Isn't graffiti, by definition, a rebellious art? Would graffiti still be as powerful and compelling if it were inside the museum rather than outside?

This Is Modern Art, written by Kevin Coval, attempts to answer these and hundreds of other questions regarding high art versus common art versus street art and so on. The play, while neither a knuckle-whitening drama nor a belly-clenching comedy, merely seeks to educate the viewer on this commonplace, yet mysterious, art form. You'll learn the differences between "tags," "stickers," "throw-ups," and "pieces," short for "masterpieces." You'll learn the names of dozens of Chicago graffiti artists, or "writers" as they're called. You'll see what goes into "bombing" -- spray painting an urban canvas as much as possible without getting caught -- a city location, the preparation that needs to be done, the items to have, the backup plan, the lookout, the logistics... it practically gives you a how-to guide.

We pass by graffiti every day in this city. Some of us may see it as an eye sore that should be scrubbed away, as vandalism, as criminal activity. Conversely, some of us may see it as art that makes the city more vibrant and beautiful, as spontaneous creativity, as colorful accents on a gray urban backdrop.

But what does this art say? What does it do? It wants to be respected and appreciated, surely. It wants recognition from those who decide what belongs in a museum and snub it as low art. But does graffiti even want to be in a museum? In and of itself, graffiti is rebellion. It's anti-establishment. It's instant social/political commentary. And it's fleeting, temporary. If the Art Institute commissioned a graffiti writer to fill a wall inside the museum, could this still be considered graffiti? Or would it lose the essential qualities that make it graffiti art?

Maybe the point isn't to be in a museum; maybe graffiti seeks to dismantle these labels and present the notion that art should be free and accessible to everyone. Maybe, and most likely, it just wants to get us talking, and if we are, then it has done its job.

This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is playing at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre through March 14th. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or by calling 312-335-1650.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Though Jackie Robinson is heralded as the first African-American baseball player to participate in the Major Leagues, more than a half of century earlier Moses Fleetwood Walker challenged the color barriers by integrating the game of professional baseball in the year 1884 when the Toledo Blue Stocking were admitted into the league.

As James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues puts it, "Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past. Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he'd go into the game. They'd call him names."

Moses Fleetwood Walker was much more than a baseball player. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, an author and a dedicated family man who achieved a wealth that was very uncommon for African-American men at such a time. Though that is interesting enough in itself, The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is the story of a black man put on trial for murder when most were still met by lynch mobs for their alleged crimes – especially to a white man. “Fleet” as he was frequently called by friends and family, was accused of stabbing a white man to death during an altercation outside a tavern. Alleging he was confronted and threatened by a mob of angry white men, he claimed has actions were in self-defense. Of course, the other side has a completely different story to tell and we are soon emerged in the trial of the decade that takes place in Syracuse, New York and is manned by an all white jury.

Playwright Ervin Gardner is able to use actual court transcripts to bring this remarkable story to life. And though some of the dialogue is a bit rough around the edges in places, the story is compelling enough to keep us on our toes. The direction by Jackie Taylor is strong and really capitalizes on key moments while Nick Ferrin, as Fleetwood Walker’s sharp-as-a-tack defense attorney, puts on a brilliant performance displaying a wit, passion and even charm, characteristic of the hero we can’t help but cheer for.

In the Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker we get a glimpse of late nineteenth century racial tensions and see both liberal and racist views. In this powerful courtroom drama we also get a rich lesson in humankind as the play goes beyond the color of one’s skin and identifies people as individuals.

After hosting a handful of very well done musicals (“One Hit Wonders”, “The Marvelettes”), it is still a nice change of pace to see The Black Ensemble Theater go back to the biography drama though the house band provides a nice touch adding the perfect, mood enhancing background music.

The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is not just engaging throughout, it is also an important story in our rich American history that most probably have never even heard. Playing at The Black Ensemble Theater through March 15th, this is a show to keep on your radar. The Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark Street in Chicago. For tickets and/or more information call (773) 769-4451 or visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org.

*Photo - Nick Ferrin (Harrison Hoyt), Casey Hayes (A.C. Hancock), Andre Teamer (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Leslie Collins (Arabella Walker)

Published in Theatre Reviews

I really enjoyed this funny little musical comedy about the ups and downs of mastering your first date with someone special. Aaron and Casey have been set up in a blind date by mutual friends. Aaron is a slightly nerdy Jewish boy in a steady finance job while Casey is an artsy, independent girl who has previously had a penchant for stoic bad boys that she never had to commit to.

I found myself really rooting for both characters to overcome their personal demons. Aaron’s demon from the past is a cheating yet outwardly devoted blonde ex- fiancé’ who actually left him at the altar. Casey struggles to overcome the dark, cynical humor and pickiness that forces her to alienate truly nice guys and write them off as “just friend” material before anything deeper can materialize between them.

The show opens with some great, funny but true observations about how many people lie on their online dating profiles and just how much “Googling” a person tells you about a person before you even meet them.  The internet, an unforgiving and never forgetting entity, all its own has truly changed the way we date and view each other and probably not for the better. Now we can just collect a bunch of facts and rarely give the other person a chance to relate to us in person for a few hours and see how the unrelated facts of their past add up.

There were several really hysterical numbers by supporting cast members who interject with their really timely advice - warnings that she is not Jewish and the occasional “bailout call” from Casey’s best gay friend or BGFF, Reggie.

Although the show and plot is aimed at twenty and early thirty-somethings, I still identified with much of it and actually learned a thing or two. For example, when Aaron’s best friend (an edgy womanizer) tries to tell him over and over not to even bring up the subject of his ex-girlfriend, I really got how tempting it is to talk about your past relationships but that it must never, never be done! As Casey’s face falls when he begins to talk about the blonde blue-eyed stunner who left him, it just ruins the moment and you see how much of a major issue and chip on his shoulder (against all women in general) and that Aaron’s seemingly innocent baggage still weighs heavy for him. There was a very funny moment when Aaron finds out the raven-haired Casey is not Jewish and again his whole world seems to come to a stop because he knows in his heart he will probably marry a Jewish woman, yet here is a very, very attractive non-Jew who could be quite good for him and would be a great complement to his own neurotic, negative critical impulses.

Charlie Lubeck and Dana Parker in the two lead roles do very nicely to illustrate their characters neuroses. Parker has a nice singing voice and you really believe she is as fiery and artistic as she appears.  The entire ensemble does a great job with each of their numbers. Cassie Slater is very funny as Dana’s married with children older sister living in the suburbs, unhappy as hell yet wanting her little sis to experience the safety of marital bliss. Adam Fane as Dana’s best gay friend absolutely steals the show with his rap and dance numbers trying to save Dana from this fateful first date.  Shea Coffman and Anne Litchfield as Aaron’s male macho best friend and dreamy ex-fiancé’ have great comic chops as they morph in and out of the scenes playing different supporting characters that round out the show nicely.

I loved the intimate and colorful set created by Thad Hallstein and lighting design by Brandon Lewis, which made the audience feel we were really saddling up to the bar with these two kids on their first date. The staging included an adorable live four piece band of young players that was visible just off stage left in soft red and green lights of a Friday night bar in Chicago or any town.

“First Date” is a fun, funny and ultimately informative production that I think will become a first date favorite for many, many couples, young and old. “First Date” is being performed at the quaint and cozy Royal George Cabaret Theatre. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.  

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

Game of Thrones, breasts, and booty: if you're an admirer of any of these three -- scratch that, four -- things, then you are well-suited to play the Game of Thongs. A burlesque revue of the wildly popular HBO show and book series by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thongs is an hour-long adventure through the land of Breasteros and across an overwhelming Narrow Sea of pasties.

Things are awry in the kingdom of Breasteros when Ned of House Stark-Naked is appointed the new Hand Job of the King and must travel to the capitol, King's Landing Strip, to assist his old friend King Robert of House Bare-ass-eon. As the tale unwinds, we meet the other members of House Stark-Naked, the closer-than-appropriate Lannister sibling duo, a pack of dancing direwolves, the sensitive Jon Snow ("the only bastard hot enough to melt the Wall"), the hilariously petulant to-be-king Joffrey, and as many other characters that could be crammed into sixty minutes as imaginably possible.

("Wait, who died?" "Jon Arryn." "Who's that, again?" "The old Hand Job of the King! His death started all these shenanigans!" "Oh, right, right." Even the characters can't keep the characters straight.)

We also meet Daenerys Tits-bare-yen and her brute of a fiancé Drogo. Their marital bliss is interrupted by the insufferable Viserys who, when receiving his final punishment, a vat of golden glitter dumped on his head, realizes he "will never be royal!" (You guessed it; queue the Lorde track.)

A tribute as well as a parody, Game of Thongs affectionately makes fun of the well-loved drama everyone can't seem to get enough of. As a burlesque, it's less erotic than it is cheeky -- after all, you will find more nudity in the TV show than you will in the burlesque -- but if you're a fan of Game of Thrones, exuberant camp, or can appreciate a well-placed set of glittering pasties, you will certainly survive the Game. For in the Game of Thongs, you strip or you die.

Game of Thongs is playing at the Gorilla Tango Theatre every Friday at 10:30PM until June 26th. Call (773) 598-4549 or visit gorillatango.com to purchase tickets. #TittiesAreComing

Published in Theatre Reviews

White Guy on the Bus is a powerful and very well-acted drama that asks several questions about modern day racism. In this highly provocative piece by Bruce Graham, we are met with race issues and opinions based on life’s experiences coming from both sides of the fence. We see how perception of race can be altered as one’s life situation changes or after impactful events occur. In this world premiere taking place at Northlight Theatre, award-winning Graham may have unleashed his best work to date.

Francis Guinan leads a very strong cast in this gripping story that mostly takes place in an upper class suburb. Ray (Guinan) is a successful “numbers guy” who makes the rich richer while his wife, Roz, has declined to teach in a privileged suburban school to work in one that is predominantly black in a tough neighborhood. We see a successful family whose son, Christopher, has recently become engaged to Molly. It doesn’t take long before Roz and Molly are engaged in tension-filled debates on race issues and socioeconomic divide – Roz who often speaks from her experiences of working with inner city school kids and Molly who has led a mostly sheltered life and appears to get most of her opinions from college. As the story continues we see that perspective changes with circumstance. And we soon wonder why Ray ditches his Mercedes to take round trip busses through the inner city on Saturdays. As Ray does this he befriends Shatique, a young black single mother who visits her brother in jail each Saturday.

White Guy on the Bus goes from engaging to intense with little warning. As the story progresses so does its intrigue. Guinan is commanding in a lights out performance as a man who is faced with heavy challenges while Mary Beth Fisher is also impressive in her role as Roz, organically delivering her lines to perfection. Patrice D. McClain makes her Northight debut and is very impressive as Shatique, a role that demands much expression and inner conflict. Also putting out a strong acting performance is Jordan Brown as Christopher in his return to Northlight (Sense and Sensibility).

This is a story that raises curiosity from the get go and builds interest with a sure-footed steady pace all the way to its climactic ending. Artistic Director BJ Jones does a stellar job in this play’s direction quickly moving the story back and forth without big scene changes.

White Guy on the Bus is a terrific piece of Chicago theatre that will certainly stick with you afterwards and perhaps have you questioning your own perspectives towards race issues. White Man on the Bus is playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through February 28th. For tickets and/or more information call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org

*Photo - Mary Beth Fisher and Francis Guinan in White Man on the Bus

Published in Theatre Reviews

A one-time performance by the touring Argentinian group, "Tango Buenos Aires" was as invigorating as it was eloquently graceful! Presented in the stunning, historical Auditorium Theater in Chicago's downtown, the theatre interior rivaled the beauty of the dancers. Built in 1889, and acquired by Roosevelt University some years ago, the theatre hosts a wide array of traveling shows from all over the world. Exquisitely gilded and brilliantly lit, the theatre holds over three thousand in its audience and commands a high standing among Chicago's illustrious theatres, with First Lady Michelle Obama residing as honorary chair.

The performance itself was rich in tradition as spinning couples traced the floor in group dances which were not only reminiscent of the history of the Spanish tango, but hinted at a worldwide similarity in communal expression through dance. The dances themselves paid homage to that legendary Argentinian lady Eva Peron, featuring the ballad "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," from the musical based on her life, and following her progression from young girl through her singular political career.

Highlighting the evening was a dance performed solely by the men, who became a part of the music through the rhythmic use of the boleador, a slingshot-like tool reminiscent of a lasso. The boleador is a tool traditionally put to use in Argentina to help in rounding up cattle. However in this instance, the men held one in each hand and swung them around quickly in the manner of a jump rope. As the end of the boleador reached the floor, the resultant tapping was masterfully used to create rhythms even as the boleador span around the men in dexterous patterns amazing to behold.

A beautiful event, rich in culture and refreshingly artistic, Tango Buenos Aires is an experience to remember!

Tw@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 21 January 2015 18:00

New Colony’s Plastic Revolution Is Air Tight

Plastic Revolution is a funny and campy musical comedy that takes place in 1950s Kissimmee, Florida about a recently widowed suburbanite, Delores Clarke, who meets an enthusiastic and pioneering Tupperware saleswoman named Brownie Wise. Together these two gals revolutionize the sales process by introducing the concept of “Tupperware parties” as a hugely successful sales tool for the Tupperware Corporation that captured the imagination and excitement of freedom from time consuming everyday chores and sold it to the average housewife.

The other ‘Stepford Wives” in the neighborhood fear Clarke at first thinking that because she is single she is out to steal their husbands!  But after realizing that Tupperware really does free those from the slavery of cooking dinner for their families every night of the week (leftovers!) and also could provide a source of income they hold up Delores and Brownie as their heroines and start on a new way of life.

I really loved that the lead “Stepford Wife” named Lilah who warns the other women that this revolution is going to ruin their family lives and undermine their role as housewives was cast with a man in drag. Danny Taylor turned an absolutely hysterical, yet “straight” comedic performance in this role and has a beautiful, expressive singing voice to boot!

Sasha Smith in the lead role of Delores Clarke has a wonderful rich singing voice as well and a sweet quality that really endears the audience to her from the very first scene. Cassie Thompson as Brownie Wise has a great frenetic sense of physical comedy that reminds you that women of that time period began using diet pills and speed in order to get all their mind numbingly boring chores and lonely housework done!

I thought the music and comedy were each very enjoyable and that the production comes with a nice blend of parody/camp and feminist musical comedy.

In their seventh season, this is The New Colony’s Theater Company’s first production in The Den Theatre as their new permanent performance space, alongside The Hypocrites and the Irish Theater of Chicago. Plastic Revolution is being performed at Den Theatre through February 22nd. For more information and/or tickets, visit thedentheatre.com or call 773-413-0862.   

 

*Photo - (front, left to right) Cassie Thompson and Sasha Smith with (back, left to right) Elise MayfieldLizzie SchwarzrockDaeshawna Cook and Danny Taylor in The New Colony’s world premiere musical PLASTIC REVOLUTION. Photo by Ryan Bourque.

Published in Theatre Reviews

No , I haven’t read the book 50 Shades of Grey, only portions of it - while standing in the grocery store, but still I was swept up by the excitement of Broadway Playhouse’s mostly female audience who giddily lined up to see this show as if they were going to get to meet their own Mr. Grey in person.

Several of the musical parody numbers in this production got solid laughs on almost every beat and punchline, including the hysterical, “There’s a Hole Inside of Me “, “I Don’t Make Love , I F-ck!”, “Just Like any Other Couple” and “How Much Can I Take?”.  I really loved the way the three women reading the book together at a book club were the chorus for the show, interjecting their breathless responses to the action between Anastasia Steele and Grey the way the real fans of this book attempt to live out the fantasy in their own lonely lives.

I also enjoyed the way the parody shows both sides of the S & M world by showing that much of it is harmless fun and role play fantasy but that some of it is brought about by serious sexual dysfunction and or abuse, like revealing that Grey is into S & M because he was “sexually molested by an older woman from the ages of 15 to 21”. 

Ben Caplan as the plus-sized Christian Grey clad in a sickly revealing, red and white muscle builders unitard with a full on barrel tummy was hysterical, delivering his song and dance numbers with great physical comedic timing.

Diego Klock Perez was also very funny in his role as “Jose” the Latin lover who hopes to steal Steele’s heart from the dominating and untouchable Grey. Klock got great laughs just by his entrance and exit from the stage each time leaving Anastasia’s presence without losing her eye contact by backing slowing out of the room one deep step/lunge at a time.

Katie Lamark has a great singing voice and was very funny and cute as the befuddled and enamored Anastasia Steele.  But the real scene stealer for me was Carol from the chorus of three ladies’ book club played by Melanie Brook. She really reminded me of a young Carol Burnett and when I saw how young she is in person after the show I was even more impressed that she was able to pull off playing a dowdy, nerdy desperate woman in her fifties with such uncanny comedic accuracy.

The three piece band onstage was perfect for this show, it was lively and effective yet felt casual and fun. However, the set could use some real sprucing up as there was none to speak of and I think everyone was a little disappointed there was not even a backdrop painted to suggest Grey’s opulent million dollar home nor the trappings of his infamous “Red Room”.

Other than that though this was a really fun and sexy evening of entertainment because it made the whole audience feel that sex and different kinds of sex can be talked about openly and laughed at and even relished in public without anyone being offended or belittled, male OR female, fat OR thin, sexy or nerdy.  This fun and funny musical parody about America’s new obsession with soft core S & M strikes many of the right notes, no pun intended.

50 Shades! The Musical Parody is only playing at Broadway Playhouse through January 18th, so take advantage of this funny show while you still can. For more information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Friday, 19 December 2014 18:00

Cirque Dreams Holidaze at Chicago Theater

Holidaze really is like nothing you’ve seen before, especially during the traditional Holiday season offerings like The Nutcracker. The international cast members from many countries including Italy, Mongolia, Asia, Ukraine, and Ethiopia were extremely gifted in each of their unique disciplines. The magnificent Chicago Theater was a perfect venue for such a show.

The sister contortionists, aerialists, silks artists, chair stackers, and clowns all did so many different things all at the same time onstage and in the air that  it was difficult to really take it all in! 

One dancer did a balancing and juggling routine while lying on a slanted bench where at one point she literally was doing a different and independent action with each of her four limbs, Her right foot was twirling hula hoops, while her right foot balanced a rolling boll, her right hand was juggling and her left hand doing some other equally amazing task. This and all the acts really make you realize what an awesome creation the human body is and what seemingly miraculous feats it is capable of with the right talent and cultivation.

The costumes were for the most part spectacular but occasionally I thought they went a little too comical (reindeer unitards and old Mrs. Santa Claus) instead of balletic and took some of the dignity away from what were amazingly graceful and dignified performances.

Also the hypnotic, repetitive music soundtrack needs an updating as it gave everything kind of a 1990’s Euro-House Music feel that was dazzling at first but became a little overwhelming and confusing by the end of the first act.

One other note I have for the producers of this particular cast is the presence of a very young, tiny aerialist/ballet dancer who appeared to be about 6-7 years old. She was a brilliant ballerina who could very easily be playing the lead in The Nutcracker, but in this show she was trussed up in a very strange halter type contraption and pushed around the stage by a man on stilts. I felt very uncomfortable watching someone so young performing this way and doing contortionism at all when her body is so flexible because it is still forming.

To make sure I was not overreacting, I leaned over to a friend and asked what he thought and his first response was, “Creepy! Like watching child abuse!”  I agree, this act needs to be placed on the ground like the other young 9-year old dancer in the show and re-costumed as children should never be costumed in something that even resembles a restraint of any kind.

Other than that this was a refreshing and spectacular night of amazement, suspense and bursting at the seams with psychedelic Christmas colors and lighting effects that I will never forget. 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Almost as funny as it is tragic (that sounds so wrong), The Ruffians’ Burning Bluebeard, currently running at Theatre Wit, is a very unique live performance that everyone should experience. Bluebeard is an ensemble piece that recreates the stage performance that took place during the famous 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that claimed over 600 lives on Randolph Street in downtown Chicago.

The moment we enter the stage area, we are met with body bags that lie on a charred theater floor. It is a melancholy scene that sends chills up one’s spine. We soon are introduced to five stage performers and a theater manager who each tell their story of what they were doing at the time the fire struck. This happens in between the recreation of acts leading up to the tragedy. During this process we laugh and laugh some more. How can there be something funny found in something so disastrous? Masterfully, playwright Jay Torrence is able to infuse a dark humor throughout this tragic historical event. Each character delivers a knockout performance drawing laughs at will from the crowd one moment and bringing tears to one’s eyes the next.

One of the year’s best, this show is like no other.  Its vivid descriptiveness relates to the audience to the point you really feel you know the characters and are experiencing the tragedy along with them. Grim and morose is the story though comical are many of the surrounding facts such as the Mr. Bluebeard itself, the massively produced play with over four hundred cast members that was running at the time of the great fire. A play that hardly made any sense and depended on large visuals, an overload of song numbers (nine songs in first act alone) and dazzling acrobatics.

We are described beautifully the stunning details of the sixteen hundred seat Iroquois Theater, a majestic auditorium with no costs spared during its creation that was touted as fireproof just as the Titanic was called unsinkable nine years later. The sad truths are slowly released whereas mostly women and children were in attendance at this standing room only matinee performance, and that the theater was nearly escape proof once the fire erupted.  

Wonderfully directed by Halana Kays, Burning Bluebeard makes exceptional use of its limited space, successfully creating the illusion of a much larger scaled production. Ensemble members Pam Chermansky and author Jay Torrence lead the way delivering mesmerizing performances in this multi-talented and very colorful cast with Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski and Ryan Walters. And thanks to imaginative costume design, we have no problem believing we are present at a 1903 production.

In Burning Bluebeard we are treated to a rare flavor of theatre that is sure to leave a lasting impression. 

Published in Theatre Reviews
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