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When it comes to family, can there be boundaries crossed to which mercy and forgiveness should no longer considered? And should this barrier be traversed upon, is it even possible to wholeheartedly exonerate those who do even if one wants to? In Rory Kinnear’s debut play The Herd (aptly named for so many reasons) these questions are raised as we are confronted with a fractured family, presumably from an upper-middle class suburb in England, who get together to celebrate Adam’s twenty-first birthday. Adam is disabled and has the mental function of that less than a one-year-old, much like writer Rory Kinnear's adult sister, thus the seed of inspiration for this hard-hitting dramedy that perfectly utilizes the perfect amount of comic bite to ease the tension and often uncomfortable moments in this well-crafted story. Though Adam has recently been institutionalized and home visits have become a rarity, his presence is strongly felt throughout even though we never see him. 

Three generations of family have converged at Adam’s house as they await his arrival from the hospital via his caretaker. His mother, Carol, frantically races around to make everything perfect and her parents (superbly played by the great John Mahoney and Theatre Hall of Famer Lois Smith) are patient and ever optimistic of the day’s events. Adam’s thirty-two-year-old sister Claire has brought her new boyfriend over to meet her family and has some other news of her own to share. We soon learn how much Carol has sacrificed in her life to care for Adam and the stress that comes with such a burden. Yet it is also apparent it is a burden of love. Molly Regan is a turbine of passions and steadfastness in her portrayal of Carol, making a tough role appear seamless.

In anticipation of Adam’s appearance, balloons, party favors, a large birthday cake and happy faces all around seemingly provide a happy environment but that quickly changes when Adam’s father, Ian, who abandoned the family some time ago, shows up unannounced. It doesn’t take very long before layers are quickly peeled between he, Claire and Carol soon becoming an emotionally charged free for all.

As internal issues come to a head between the three, it is Carol’s parents, Brian and Patricia, who attempt to douse the flames whether it be by way of humor or simply sound observation. It is refreshing to see how the grandparents assert themselves as the voice of reason in this story as Kinnear places an obvious importance on the wisdom of elders in an age where the aging are so often disrespected and disregarded.

the-herd1

The way humor is so often used as an escape for such heavy subject matter in Kinnear’s “The Herd” is very true to life. He is not afraid to joke about death nor is Kinnear afraid to tap into the unpopular inner thoughts we might have, such as wondering if Adam’s death will allow Carol to live again. Smith’s sharp waggishness along with Mahoney’s spot on comic delivery only strengthen already strong characters that we can quickly trust and rely upon.

As the play nears its end, we are hit with the decision of whether to forgive or not. Frances Guinan makes a compelling case as Ian and, though he opens up and lets himself become vulnerable in seeking forgiveness and once again gaining acceptance, we wonder if he can be trusted despite his apparent sincerity. Guinan is marvelous as he rolls up his sleeves and, as he does in so many roles, really puts his heart and then some into his performance as Ian.  

Kinnear’s “The Herd” at Steppenwolf is highly recommended. Its all-star cast, engaging dialogue, moving story and elaborately designed set all contribute into making this a nearly perfect theatre piece.

“The Herd” is playing at Steppenwolf through June 7th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.steppenwolf.org.   

Published in Theatre Reviews

If RENT made a baby with an episode of Dateline, the result might be something like Murder Ballad, the musical. This rock opera tells the story of a love triangle gone out of control, and there is much in the way of drama, energetic pop/rock anthems, suspense, and -- you guessed it -- murder.

In New York City, Sara is an Upper West sider who seemingly has it all: money, a good husband, a beautiful daughter, but she also harbors a dark, destructive past that was never fully left behind. When she reconnects with her unpredictable ex, Tom, her life takes a turn towards the chaotic and explosive.

The audience is launched head-first into the story as the four-person cast of Murder Ballad belts and wails their way through 75 minutes of frenzied rock numbers, strung together by a crooning fly-on-the-wall narrator. A unique element of this show is the voyeuristic set-up and theme. Essentially, you are sitting in Sara's kitchen, and Tom's bedroom, and the King's Club, the divey downtown joint that serves as the homebase for this tale. You're not onstage or offstage, you're sharing the space with these folks. You can even order a complimentary drink at the bar before showtime, then take a seat with your friends to hungrily watch the plot unfold. Because after all, to paraphrase from the show's finale, drama is delicious entertainment, "until it happens to you."

Murder Ballad, created by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, and directed by James Beaudry, is playing at the Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N Milwaukee Ave) until May 9th. Tickets available at bailiwickchicago.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
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
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