In brief: Cookie Play at Trap Door, Push Button Murder at Side Project, The Arc’s Top Girls and Lifeline’s Lions in Illyria

K. sez:

My favorite of these four is the one intended for children, though whether it’s in fact suitable for children is another matter. Lions in Illyria is Robert Kauzlaric’s clever adaptation of Twelfth Night to the animal kingdom. It contains surprising insights into the original text: I had never before registered that Viola and Olivia are mirror images in more than name as both mourn brothers, the first genuinely and the second affectedly. Viola and Sebastian are the twin lions of the title; Olivia is a gazelle and Orsino (aptly) a peacock. These and all the other characters are played by the same four stunningly versatile actors under Amanda Delheimer Dimond’s impeccably clear direction: kudos to Bryan Bosque, Mykele Callicutt, Brandi Lee and Kate McDermott. But many audience members were 5 or under, and they didn’t seem to follow what was going on, though their parents were having a high old time. This show should be seen by every Brownie Scout troupe in the Chicago metropolitan area: it’s perfect for girls ages 7 to 11. Too much romance for boys, too much plot for younger children, too many morals drawn for older children. So this is a perfect show, lacking only its perfect audience.

Both Trap Door and the Side Project offer world premieres about torture and confinement. Each is appropriately agonizing but that doesn’t mean I recommend either. Cookie Play at Trap Door purports to be a parody of the national-security state in which we all now live: a pair of government agents seek the cooperation of a fugitive’s parents while the mother tries to pacify them with cookies and the father with agreement. Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, the son is being tortured. But you can’t satirize a self-parody, and our government’s buzzwords and euphemisms have long since become risible. If you haven’t been reading the papers and need an education in what’s been done in your name since 2001, by all means see Cookie Play; otherwise skip it, though director Kate Hendrickson and her cast (especially Lyndsay Rose Kane as Mom the baker) bring out everything the text has to give, and more.

Meanwhile, in the equally claustrophobic Side Project space, Ronan Marra directs Push Button Murder, whose title gives you the whole story. A pair of soldiers sits in a bunker in Ohio and shoot down suspected terrorists elsewhere in the world. They cope with gallows humor and by quizzing each other on trivia until a mysterious government agent (sound familiar?) shows up—for what purpose, neither they nor we can be certain. Meanwhile, in alternate scenes which seem wholly unconnected to the bunker story, a pair of fired teachers considers revolutionary action. Then the soldiers take the government agent hostage and cover his mouth with duct tape as a sort of down payment on future torture. Again, if you’ve been living in your own bunker for the past 10 years, you might need to be told that we kill people remotely and then describe them as terrorists. Steve J. Spencer’s script tries to make this point new by connecting it to the de-funding of education but succeeds only in making it confusing and overcrowded. Again, the actors—especially Meredith Rae Lyons as the female soldier—do their best but they’re prisoners in a play which inflicts pain without gaining, or imparting, intelligence.

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is something completely different: a blend of kitchen-sink realism and second-wave feminist fantasy. As in Judy Chicago’s installation “The Dinner Party,” Churchill summons women from history and myth to evoke forms of female power from Patient Griselda to Pope Joan. She then settles down to the actual story, which turns on the question whether a woman can be successful in business only by abandoning her child. Doubtless this was a fresh subject at some point but it’s the deadest of equines today. Director Mark Boergers has chosen to have his actresses strut across the stage in weirdly stylized (and offensively sexualized) ways which do credit to no one, but two performances rise above this handicap: Pamela May David as a bawdy Pope and Aislinn Kerchaert as a desperately needy adolescent confronted with equally unacceptable alternative models of womanhood. Be warned, though: the next person of any gender who mentions the concept of “having it all” will have all of my fist in his/her face.


Last Year’s Best and Worst Shows on The Arts Section: the latest (and of course greatest) theatrical retrospective

From WDCB Radio, 90.9 FM: Jonathan and Kelly reflect on the year gone by as they prepare for their return to weekly reviewing in the new year.

Yes, that’s right: now you can hear us every single Sunday morning at 8 a.m. on WDCB’s newly-expanded The Arts Section hosted by Gary Zidek. All you have to do is be awake at 8 a.m.

A belated review of RedTwist’s I and You (timely when broadcast on WDCB, 90.9 FM)

Jonathan and Kelly disagree (surprise!) about this production of last year’s Steinberg Award-winning play.

Chicago Theater Week Tickets on Sale January 6

K. sez:

Chicago Theater Week this year is February 12-22 (likewise the week of my 60th birthday, which I’m practicing saying aloud).  Tix, which provide discounted admission to shows all over town, go on sale January 6.  Remind everyone you know: there’s no better place to spend Presidents’ Day week than in a nice warm theater seat for which you’ve paid as little as $15 and no more than $30.

Meanwhile, happy new year!

Jingle bells, jingle bells: the Dueling Critics rate holiday fare

It takes a pair of Jews to find the very best Christmas shows. Jonathan and Kelly do not disappoint, mixing classics with newcomers and sincere celebrations of the season with the snarkiest possible takes on it. Whatever your attitude, you’ll find much to enjoy!


Hot Georgia Sunday and Q Brothers’ A Christmas Carol: Theater for all seasons (Whoops! Used that already)

Kay Kron (Tara) and Rob Fenton (Robbie) in Haven Theatre Company’s production of Hot Georgia Sunday. (Photo by Dean LaPrairie.)

Hot Georgia Sunday, Haven Theatre Company at the Den

Hot Georgia Sunday tells its story of love and faith in a Georgia town through a series of interwoven monologues as funny as they are genuine. Any mention of “love and faith” suggests a treacly sort of religiosity, but what playwright Catherine Trieschmann gives us is something quite different: a portrait of hardscrabble people doing their profane best to get from day to day. Trieschmann writes with equal parts wit and sensitivity, and director Marti Lyons makes sure every line gets its due. A superb ensemble of six makes you laugh at them and with them all at the same time. This is a Chicago premiere; I want someone to find Trieschman’s next play now so it can have its world premiere here. She is going to be a big star.

Q Brothers’ A Christmas Carol at Chicago Shakespeare

And speaking of profane, the Q Brothers’ hip-hop contemporary musical rendition of A Christmas Carol is likewise free of sugarplums and treacle, but filled with genuine (dare I say it?) Christmas spirit. As Scrooge, whose bah-humbug is here rendered “Christ-my-ass-mas!,” goes through the past, present and future, the brothers and their company ring every possible change on the familiar tale: the two philanthropists whom our anti-hero rejects wear yarmulkes and are named Rahm and Ari; Tiny Tim has an unbelievable array of illnesses (“Now I have gout. In my ear.”); and the ghost of Marley turns out to be Bob Marley, or as the ghost puts it, “My own personal hell.” The show is a blast, as clever and still as true to the original as the Brothers’ versions of Shakespeare. See it when you’re feeling most cynical about the holiday—its rhymes and rhythms will perk you right up.


The Winter’s Tale by Promethean Theatre Ensemble, and–coming up–Dance Theatre of Harlem

K. sez:

Preview before review: Dance Theatre of Harlem is coming to the Auditorium Theatre on Friday for three days only. The program includes two dances to music associated with Harlem, and then—for something completely different—a piece by the great choreographer Ulysses Dove, set to music written by a contemporary Estonian composer as a tribute to an English classicist. I’m seeing the program Friday night but don’t wait to hear what I think: just go.
Promethean Theatre Ensemble is presenting Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at the Athenaeum Theatre in Lakeview through December 13. This is a deeply puzzling work—as director Brian Pastor says in his program note, the play is a Greek tragedy with a happy ending. The production’s first act is impeccable: the actors speak the iambic pentameter with an unusual sensitivity to the meter’s similarity to natural speech. John Arthur Lewis as the insanely jealous King Leontes and Cameron Feagin as the queen whom he destroys bring heartfelt emotion to their wrenching encounters, with fine support from the company, especially Nick Lake as the loyal servitor Camillo.

And then comes the second act. Suddenly the play turns from drama to pastoral comedy before reverting to a dramatic reconciliation infused with magic. The tone shift simply does not work for me, not in this production nor in any previous one I’ve seen. The audience is expected to go from horrified observer to a sort of co-conspirator in a plot which alternates between utter predictability and complete unbelievability.

Jonathan chides me that Shakespeare isn’t intended to be naturalistic, but I’m not asking that he be. In The Tempest, his mix of drama and comedy with magic makes for a perfect evening in the theater. In The Winter’s Tale, the same recipe produces an inedible stew.