When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!”
Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.
Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!
Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”
He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?" Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!"
Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?
Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!
Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that!
Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself.
In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet.
Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.
In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not.
We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside.
Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.
The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke.
Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time".
As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.
The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.”
It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own!
Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.
Before the colonial history of New York City was hip hop-ified by outrageously talented Broadway composer/writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, a small portion of the city had its own hip hop story to tell. In the Heights, which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and subsequently won the Tony for Best Musical (among four total wins) and Grammy for Best Musical Show album, features a lively ensemble who collectively share the story of their own corner of Manhattan.
It's appropriate that Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre chose Miranda's first musical to perform through October, as it will overlap the Chicago premiere of his second musical, the cultural phenomenon Hamilton, which gets its own Loop theater at the end of the month. Like Hamilton, In the Heights is a mixture of brilliantly-crafted rap, (as well as merengue and salsa), powerful singing, and rich, often funny, dialogue.
The story, set in Manhattan's predominantly Latino neighborhood Washington Heights, centers around the neighborhood bodega where the members of the community congregate, whether to grab their morning coffee, flirt, gossip, or discuss their dreams, their conversations painting a complicated portrait of the "barrio" life. Some of them, like the willful and stubborn Vanessa, see the Heights as a prison sentence and hope for a better future, wishing to get out by any means. Others, like Abuela Claudia, immigrated to the utopian New York City when they were young and dearly love the neighborhood in which they have lived most of their lives. Meanwhile, others struggle with both love and disdain for the Heights, like college dropout Nina who wrestles with the shame of losing her scholarship and breaking the bittersweet news to her parents that she must return home.
On top of the drama, humor, romance, heartbreak, and impossible hopes passionately sung and rapped about by the various characters -- Porchlight's modest 18-person cast showcases extreme talent, the powerful female voices in particular could easily be heard on a professional Broadway stage -- the authenticity of a real New York community shines through. From the "piragua" (flavored shaved ice) seller carting through town, to the close-knit gossipy hair salon, to the shop owners chasing away graffiti artists, to the fierce Puerto Rican and Dominican pride on display, In the Heights realistically captures the essence of a colorful, cultural community. It entices and welcomes you with open arms, making you feel like you could be right at home if you found yourself at the edge of northern Manhattan getting off the A train at 181st Street.
In the Heights is playing at Stage 773 now through Sunday, October 23rd. Tickets can be purchased at Porchlight Music Theatre.
The image of sitting around a campfire under the stars brings to mind nights connecting with friends and family, sharing stories about the past and imagining what the future may hold. Connected, by Collaboraction, plays on this theme transporting the audience from campfire to campfire throughout history and into the future, examining how our connections to one another can shape our world.
The show opens as a young girl prepares for her dreams during “water sleep”. The audience puts on their time travel masks along with her and together they travel all the way back in time to the Big Bang – the original campfire. From there, the play moves from the first fire the caveman created, to a camp fire on the Oregon Trail, to a 60’s peace and love campfire, to our virtual campfire supported by technology and social media and ending with a glimpse of what our future campfire conversation could look like, coming right back to our young protagonist preparing for her “water sleep” in this imagined future.
Connected is many things; maybe too many to appreciate fully in the moment. It is part science class, explaining the big bang, the creation of life on earth, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is part historical drama, showing human evolution from grunting cavemen to a virtual reality society. And finally, it is part social commentary dealing with how technology has changed the way we connect with each other. While all of our technological advances are intended to bring us closer together, Connected explores if it has actually isolated us from one another and what risks does that carry with it. With so many elements to this show, the initial audience reaction may include some confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed but with time and reflection the value becomes more clear.
The show is staged in the round for a small audience so that everyone feels they have a seat at the campfire. In addition to the epic and multi-dimensional story it is telling, the show integrates movement, puppets, video, social media and audience interaction to bring it to life. It is a one act show lasting about 80 minutes and the pacing of the show keeps it moving along, covering millions and millions of years in that short time.
There were many elements to this show which were quite unique including a break in the 4th wall where the audience had a choose their own adventure moment which resulted in a group dance break to the Cha Cha Slide followed by selfie time. The show is full of so many stories, and constant surprises challenging the audience to reflect more deeply on their own connections.
It is certainly not a traditional piece of theater so do not go in with those expectations. Be open and prepared for just about anything and you will likely enjoy the show, if not in those moments after the show ends when you try to piece through what you just saw, but certainly in the days that follow as you reflect on everything that happened in the small theater space of the Flatirons Building.
See for yourself. Connected is playing through May 29th. Get your tickets at collaboraction.org.
How do you categorize a musical that is part comedy, part drama, and part burlesque? The answer is: you don't need you. Like Kander and Ebb's later popular Broadway hit Chicago, Cabaret uses flashy and often funny nightclub performance as a device to embellish and expound upon the more serious and sometimes grim events of the story. In Chicago, shameless homicide by two murderesses is explored through jazzy nightclub acts, while in Cabaret, the grisly beginnings of WWII and the anxious pall it casts over the characters' lives is explored through fearless, garter-brimming club performances.
Cabaret is a unique musical, one that will sneak up on you and knock you in the chin if you try to pigeonhole it. The songs are inordinately catchy and the story turns unpredictably. On opening night at the inaugural show of the newly named Private Bank Theatre, I was surprised to hear so many shocked reactions from the audience around me. Every Nazi reference was met with gasps, one short scene of drug use left the audience deadly silent, the never-even-mentioned-by-name subject briefly implied by Sally's doctor visit caused an audible "Oh my God!", and Cliff's apparent bisexuality was received with total confusion. "But he kissed a boy. How could he fall in love with a girl?" Please. If audiences could survive it in 1962, they should certainly be able to handle it now. The reactions only serve to prove that Cabaret has a timeless impact.
When American self-described "starving novelist" Cliff (a capable if slightly bland Lee Aaron Rosen) travels to Berlin in pursuit of literary inspiration, he discovers it in the form of the buoyant and provocative English cabaret dancer Sally Bowles (a character brilliantly committed to by Andrea Goss) and the seedy nightclub crowd with which she surrounds herself. They soon begin living together and befriend landlady Fraulein Schneider (a subduedly wise Shannon Cochran) and fellow tenant, the Jewish Herr Schultz (a cute and gentle Mark Nelson), the latter of whom begin a sweet but eventually controversial romance. Sally and Cliff's lives are an ecstatic chaos of gin and sexual liberation until Cliff's friend and confidante Herr Ludwig (flawlessly portrayed by Ned Noyes) reveals his disturbing true colors, triggering the destruction that floods the characters' lives from that point on and effectively bursting their bubble of delusion. The omniscient Emcee of Berlin's sordid Kit Kat Club (a delightfully snarky Randy Harrison) guides the viewer between the actual plot events and their corresponding cabaret acts.
My favorite of the over-the-top club performances cleverly mirroring the real life drama is the titular showstopper "Cabaret." Many folks, likely many of the shocked theatre-goers seated around me, may associate this song with a charismatic, triumphant Liza Minnelli from the 1972 film (or even an older, sequined-out Liza cheerily vamping her way through a showtune medley) and thus were not expecting the heavier tone rendered in the stage version. At this point, Sally has lost everything. She's alone, she's ill, she's broke, she is out of a job after this final performance. Her life has spiraled into a living hell. Goss made a powerful impression as Sally throughout and nothing showcased her acting talents more than her raw, enraged delivery of this song. The eerie juxtaposition of Sally's unabashed ruin with jaunty lyrics celebrating a wildly fun, carefree lifestyle gave me chills, the last line all but screamed at the audience before she knocks down the mike stand in her fury.
This is a musical that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. It will not meet your expectations, in the best way possible.
Cabaret is playing at the Private Bank Theatre at 18 W Monroe now through February 21st. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster or by going to BroadwayInChicago.
Hordes of swarming, diving birds are attacking a cabin in Somewhere, America -- and, we later assume due to dead radio noise and a major power blackout, the entire country -- while two strangers seek shelter and safety within its walls. They don't know why the birds are attacking but they've seen enough carnage to know stepping outdoors during the beak- and talon-filled ambushes every six hours at high tide means undoubtedly walking into their own deaths. They pass the hours by talking, learning about each other, reading, writing, and most pressingly, discussing their survival. Food is scarce, they have no working transportation, and there's no electricity.
When a third party enters the scene seeking refuge, the two unhesitatingly take her in. The group dynamic now changed, suspicion and mistrust seep into the threesome's thoughts and behavior like an intravenous disease. The silence and long, drawn-out hours don't give the characters the opportunity to ruminate over their regrets, worries, and doubts so much as shove them into a dark, smothering heap of them.
While most of us are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 cinematic horror masterpiece, and maybe less of us with the novellette by Daphne du Maurier, I had never heard of this story being put to the stage. Adapted by acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Griffin Theater Company's The Birds is an entirely original story set in the apocalyptic universe created by du Maurier and later expanded upon by Hitchcock. The play is less about the literal horrors caused by insane, vicious birds attacking as much as the metaphorical: What would we do to survive? In what ways would we change if society collapses? Would our values regress if nobody is there to enforce rules and keep score? What are we capable of? As The Birds will show, the monsters outside are no match for the ones lurking inside.
The Birds is playing at Theater Wit Thursdays through Sundays until July 19th. Visit theaterwit.org for tickets.
I know about as much Russian as a non-native speaker needs. I know how to say hello and goodbye (Preevyet and Da sveedaneeya). I know how to say thank you (Spaseeba), I even know how to say my little monkey (moya malen'kaya obez'yana) though that doesn’t come in handy too often. Just today I learned the Russian word for amazing (Izumitel'nij). But in Russian and English “amazing” falls short of describing the exceptional performance of “Up & Down” by the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.
“Up & Down” is a story set amidst the roaring 20’s. A young psychiatrist falls in love with one of his mental patients who, as it turns out, is a fabulously wealthy socialite. They are wed and soon he is swept up into the money-fueled glitz and glamour that made the 20’s so spectacular. He wrestles with his desire to love and cure his new wife, the enticement of the sensuous social scene, and being the honorable psychiatrist performing his life’s work. Ultimately he succumbs to the pleasures and temptations of the times and it becomes his undoing.
Audience members might liken Eifman’s “Up & Down” to Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. The set was bright and sleek, art-deco inspired and neon-powered. The dancers danced the Charleston and the tango to Gershwin’s jazzy score. Everything leant itself to immersing the company and audience into the 1920's providing the perfect backdrop for Eifman’s story. As Eifman himself said of “Up & Down, “This ballet is both a tragic and bright chronicle of a person’s spiritual death—the story about how a dream of happiness turns into a disaster, and an externally beautiful and carefree life flowing to the rhythms of jazz, into a nightmare. I want audiences to feel all of the emotions of these characters and become just as immersed in the characters’ lives as the dancers are.”
Eifman is often referred to as one of the leading choreographers in the world and it is easy to see why. His style is classic yet edgy, flowing yet jagged, smooth yet striking. He doesn’t force the audience to know the difference between a jeté and a relevé. His style of storytelling is easy to follow and understand, not an ounce of pretentiousness or far reaching concepts to be found. His dancers are afforded the room to convey charm, humor, lust, pain, and even madness. Despite criticism of the American debut of “Up & Down,” I found the ballet to be captivating. This was the ballet to turn new audiences onto the ballet; the story had loonies, beer drinkers, figments of a mind manifested as an evil twin, lust and love, glamour, humor, silent movie stars, evil investors, and a twist ending. What more could you want? “Up & Down” was also the perfect ballet to celebrate the Auditorium Theatre’s 125th year. It personified the timelessness of the ballet while pushing the art form into the modern world.
“Up & Down” might have come and gone, but should you find yourself in the same city as this St. Petersburg Ballet Company, grab and friend and say “da-vai!” Let’s go to the ballet!
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.
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.
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