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.

HELLCAB 2014 - Richard Cotovsky horiz

Review Roundup: Offbeat holiday fare plus drama for all seasons

Richard Cotovsky in Profiles Theatre’s Hellcab by Will Kern; photo by Michael Brosilow.

K. sez:

The phrase “holiday show” generally suggests Dickens and his offspring: variously heartwarming and caustic, but in any case addressed directly to the meanings ascribed to the season.  However, two current shows consider the holiday from unique angles, for which we should all be grateful.  Profiles Theatre presents its third annual revival of Will Kern’s Hellcab, a one-man show with a cast of dozens.  This 1992 piece, created by the late lamented Famous Door Theatre and originally intended only for a brief late-night run, presents the adventures of The Driver (the suitably weathered Rich Cotovsky) as he steers his cab throughout Chicago on Christmas Eve.  A cornucopia of actors drop in for a single scene, portraying the fighting couple, the angel-winged accordionist, the amorous cougar and every other imaginable encounter on the mean-but-not-always streets.  It’s a beautiful piece, ably directed by Eric Burgher, and its tiny bit of Christmas spirit is just the right amount.  Through January 11 on the Profiles Mainstage, 4139 North Broadway.  Tickets $35-$40.

If it strikes you as too early for Christmas, check out the Thanksgiving taking place onstage at the American Theater Company, presenting the world premiere of Stephen Karam’s The Humans.  Roundabout Theater Company in New York commissioned this play and will mount it in the spring, but it will be hard-pressed to do a better job than director P.J. Paparelli has with this production.  ATC has something of a hot hand right now: it presented the world premiere of Disgraced, which just opened on Broadway (I’m still kicking myself for having missed it), and has an ongoing relationship with Karam, who co-authored with Paparelli the succes d’estime columbinus. On a superbly evocative two-level set by David Ferguson, the troupe enacts in real time a first Thanksgiving at the Soho dump, er, duplex of a young couple faced with hosting her parents, sister and demented grandmother. The good news about the play is that it’s a pitch-perfect rendition of a family holiday; the bad news is that it’s a pitch-perfect, etc. You may want to wait until after your own Thanksgiving before sharing that of the Blake family; that way, instead of dreading what’s ahead of you, you can laugh at—and begin to understand—what’s behind. The production is anchored by three of Chicago’s finest veterans: Keith Kupferer as the troubled father, Hanna Dworkin as the put-on-a-happy-face mother, and Lance Baker as the boyfriend encountering his beloved’s family for the first time. If you don’t recognize your own family, perhaps you’re from Mars. Through December 21 at ATC, 1909 West Byron. Tickets $43-$48.

Not everything onstage is about the holidays, of course, not even if its author is Dickens.

Strawdog Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit Great Expectations is a perfect rendering of Gale Childs Daly’s remarkably clear and effective adaptation of that flopulous book about the damaging consequences of social climbing. Daly manages to retain Dickens’s voice with judiciously chosen passages read by the six actors who also play all he roles, while straightening out the tangled mess of plot woven by that paid-by-the-word Victorian. Director Jason Gerace’s production is comic where it can be, sincere where it needs to be, and unpretentious throughout. Mike Tepeli (reprising the role) gives Pip all his dimensions: asinine, touching, misguided, loving, while the rest of the company changes character with nothing more than a ruched-up skirt or scarf to help them communicate the changes. Great Expectations (unlike the aforementioned “holiday” shows) is suitable for children, provided they have decent attention spans; it runs 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission. Scheduled to run through December 13 (with the possibility of an extension) at Strawdog, 3829 North Broadway. Tickets are $28.

And finally, there are three pieces about war: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Women at War; Eclipse Theatre Company’s Mud, River, Stone and Spartan Theatre Company’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day.

R. Altay (center) and K.V. McNeil
Rengin Altay and Krystal V. McNeil in Rivendell Theatre Emsemble’s Women at War. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Rivendell’s Women at War, written by company member Megan Carney and directed by Artistic Director Tara Mallen, speaks in the voices of real women who’ve served over the past twenty years. Perhaps most surprising to those of us who are safely civilian is the pride the soldiers, sailors, airmen (their term) and marines take in their service, notwithstanding the sacrifices and adjustments that service requires. The women’s patriotism is a multi-layered thing, and one of the pleasures of the evening is watching their different attitudes begin to converge and their fiercely individual reasons for joining up begin to meld into an equally fierce sense of comradeship and community. Their struggles to be recognized as full partners, while they’re deployed or when they come home, are more familiar but no less moving, and the final moment—in which the names of all the soldier-contributors are spoken by the actors—is truly poignant. Through December 6 at Rivendell, 5779 North Ridge. Tickets $32-$35, with $10 discounts for students, seniors, veterans and military personnel.

Mud, River, Stone by Lynn Nottage, concluding Eclipse Theatre Company’s season of her work, offers a completely different perspective on the business of war. A pair of privileged African-Americans decide to seek their roots in South East Africa and find themselves lost in the jungle. They take refuge at a once-grand hotel and find it anything but: no food, no heat, no telephone service. There is, however, plenty of alcohol, and by the time it’s been sufficiently abused by others at the hotel the Americans find themselves among hostages in a civil war about which they know nothing and care less. Nottage undercuts some of the tension by constructing the play in flashback, so we know the protagonists survive; but as her primary point seems to be that the survival of one individual is no more important than that of any other, her choice of structure helps compel the audience to pay more attention to the Africans than we might otherwise. Like much of the playwright’s work, Mud, River, Stone highlights the impossibility of communication—especially but not exclusively of the cross-cultural sort—and under Andrea J. Dymond’s direction every member of the cast demonstrates with great skill how people talk past each other until they become so desperate they give up on language and use violence instead. AnJi White is particularly fine as the American wife, who combines smarts with so much snobby shortsightedness that her brains do her no good at all. Through December 14 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport. Tickets $28.

Guy F. Wicke and Naomi Mark in Spartan Theatre Company’s A Bright Room Called Day. Photo by Justine Albert Photography.

Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day treats war as a hideous necessity rather than the grim joke it seems to be for Nottage. Set simultaneously in the early 1930s and in the early 1980s, it chronicles the impact of Hitler’s rise on a group of intellectuals in Berlin and draws parallels between their refusal to acknowledge the need for action and Ronald Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. In Spartan Theatre Company’s flawless rendition, this fever-dream of a play succeeds in evoking contemporary life and our need to acknowledge and act on the issues of our time, whether domestic spying or climate change or collapsing democracy. Director Laura Elleseg never lets the parallels get heavy-handed, instead presenting a phenomenally sharp and clear and current version of a play blessedly written before Tony Kushner started reading his notices and learned he was a genius. It’s only playing through this weekend (November 23); do. not. miss. it. At the Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1422 West Irving Park Road; tickets $15-$20.


Radio Duel on WDCB, 90.9: The Night Alive at Steppenwolf

Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper and Helen Sadlet in The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed at Steppenwolf by Henry Wishcamper.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

J. and K. duel on WDCB’s “The Arts Section” over the new play by Conor McPherson at Steppenwolf.


Review Roundup: A Thrilling “Parade” plus worthy work from Silk Road Rising, MPAACT and Lifeline

Sarah Bockel and Jim Deselm in BoHo Theatre’s production of Parade by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. 

Parade, BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit: “I’m going to see a musical about a lynching,” I said to my friends.  Small wonder I couldn’t find anyone interested in taking my extra ticket.  Their loss, because as directed by Linda Fortunato, Parade is a quintessentially American story told mostly through Jason Robert Brown’s powerful music and trenchant lyrics—an opera for people like me who don’t like opera.  The story, as rendered in a book by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame: who knew he could be so unsentimental and so smart?), details what happened to Leo Frank, a Northern Jew in Atlanta, when a young woman is found murdered in his factory in the earliest years of the 20th Century.  He’s convicted on essentially no evidence, and when the Governor of Georgia recognizes that and commutes Frank’s death sentence, the townsfolk drag Frank from prison and execute him themselves.

From the opening scene, set at the start of the Civil War, the text makes clear that for the people of Atlanta the War has never ended—the eponymous parade is a celebration of Confederate Memorial Day—and that they can’t resist the opportunity to avenge themselves on a Yankee.  Fortunato and music director Matt Deitchman bring this out with subtlety, but it’s the central message of the piece.  I clearly remember the assassination of JFK fifty years ago; so of course in 1913 the people of Atlanta are still remembering, and trying to come to terms with, its burning and their loss of the war.

The company performs the show’s difficult music with great facility, and though most are condemned to play loathsome characters none shrinks away from the required ugliness.  Jim Deselm gets surprisingly little to do as Frank, but whenever he’s given the opportunity he soars; and he’s more than matched by the excellent Sarah Bockel as his wife, a Southerner trying to reconcile her love for her homeland with her love for her husband.  A meditation on the persistence of hatred, BoHo Theatre’s Parade is a thought-provoking and thrilling work.  Through November 16 at Theater Wit on Belmont; get there during these final two weeks.

The Hundred Flowers Project at Silk Road Rising: Midway through this meta-theatrical work by Christopher Chen, I had to remind myself that normal people don’t see four plays a week and that therefore most members of the audience for this show will not also have seen House Theatre’s equally and similarly meta-theatrical Season on the Line.  So let’s presume you haven’t and that therefore the notion of a play about developing a play doesn’t feel like old hat.  In that case, you will find The Hundred Flowers Project under Joanie Schultz’s vigorous direction a challenging and exciting work, in which a group of young actors working to develop a script about the Chinese Cultural Revolution find themselves engaging in the same destructive group-think as the political figures they seek to portray.  Chen has a terrific ear for phony inclusiveness and for dictatorial behavior masquerading as consensus-building, and those political themes give heft and value to what might otherwise have been an exercise in actors’ being cleverly self-regarding.  Mia Park shines as the power-drunk director, and she’s ably supported by the rest of the cast.  Michael Stanfill’s video and projections design provide the perfect ominous note of nowhere-ness, of ideas and plans and even people disappearing into a rabbit hole of dishonest nonsense.   Well worth seeing; through November 23 at Silk Road Rising’s home in the Chicago Temple building downtown.

The Velveteen Rabbit at Lifeline Theatre: I hardly ever review children’s theater, and now we know why: I started crying about half an hour into the 50-minute length of The Velveteen Rabbit, and didn’t stop until I’d sniffled my way up the street and had a good howl in my car. Elise Kauzlaric’s adaptation of the Margery Williams book misses none of the pathos of this child’s love for his stuffed rabbit and the rabbit’s reciprocal desire to be “real”—a term which turns out to have more than one meaning. Amanda Link directs a small company led by Christopher Acevedo as The Boy and the utterly adorable Jamie Cahill as the Velveteen Rabbit, and the show’s end is happy enough for children—just not enough for hard-bitten theater critics. Jessica Kuehnau Wardell’s costume designs vividly demonstrate the rabbit’s passage from shiny new toy to beloved companion. Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. through November 23.

The Inside at MPAACT:As Executive Director Reginald Lawrence pointed out in his curtain speech, MPAACT has been producing the work of Lydia R. Diamond since before she was LYDIA DIAMOND, author of Stick Fly and Voyeurs de Venus as well as an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This early work, adapted from the poems of Nikki Giovanni and first done by the company 15 years ago, places Kristin E. Ellis alone on stage narrating an evening her character Emma spends at a party full of academic pretensions and not-very-concealed racism. While Ellis’s performance (under Deidre Searcy’s direction) is heartfelt and full of hairpin turns from comedy to pain and back again, the play itself runs out of steam about 2/3 of the way through. Not to be too literal-minded, but why doesn’t Emma just leave? Yes, she’s seeking approval from this roomful of cretins—seeking to be on ‘the inside’—but no one this smart would let herself be whipsawed in the ways described. Shepsu Aakhu’s set, featuring bottles and other tokens of her life suspended from the ceiling, provides just the right feeling of, well, suspense: when this night finally ends, what will have crashed down and what will remain? Through November 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue.

Strandline at A Red Orchid Theatre:Red Orchid never fails to offer superb acting but it might want to reconsider the number of times it chooses plays consisting of drunken Irish people yelling at each other. As anyone who’s ever been the only sober person at a party knows, listening to drunks can wear thin quickly; and though Abbie Spallen’s play (here in its U.S. premiere) intends to be unraveling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, the work has neither the appropriately weighty mystery nor the sufficiently clear resolution to support its length. J.R. Sullivan directs the usual stellar cast, including AROT Artistic Director Kirsten Fitzgerald, Dado and Natalie West. Perhaps the appeal of the piece was the number of roles it contains for women of a certain age, but even that novelty won’t sustain an audience for two acts. Through December 7 at the company’s home space in Old Town.


Dueling over A Season on the Line at the House Theatre

J. and K. square off over House Theatre’s theatrical in-joke adaptation of “Moby Dick.” Is the critic in the white suit Tom Wolfe, or the White Whale, or Chris Jones, or what? Plus, Jonathan talks about the big changes coming to Steppenwolf.


Two great productions (at Oracle & Steep), two good ones and the one at the Goodman

K. sez:

Jonathan’s in Japan en route to China, leaving me alone to drown in a sea of openings.  A quick summation in baseball terms: two runs, two hits, one left on base.

The home runs

The Vandal at Steep Theatre is the Midwest premiere of Hamish Linklater’s first full-length play.  It’s a debut any writer would envy.  In a series of brief naturalistic scenes and with only three characters—a teenager, his father, and the middle-aged woman the teen befriends at a bus stop—Linklater’s characters explore nothing less than the meaning of life.  And yet it’s anything but self-serious–in fact, much of the show is quite funny, especially a drawn-out metaphor involving Doritos and beer as the two ends of life’s spectrum of meaning.  Anything more I say about this atmospheric piece will ruin its brief passage upon the stage: just go see Shade Murray’s production in which the always-excellent Kendra Thulin conveys every nuance of grief and loss while maintaining a flinty exterior the two men work hard to penetrate because it’s so obviously worthwhile to do so.   ((Jack Miggins as the Boy and Alex Gilmor as the Man are both fine.)  On Dan Stratton’s set consisting of a few boxes serving as a bus bench, a store counter and everything else, these three manage to conjure not only the physical setting in an urban desert between a hospital, a cemetery and a liquor store but the spiritual aridity it represents—and the possibilities that yet remain.  See this exceptional piece of work, playing through November 8.

And still there’s something even better on another Chicago stage: Romulus, Gore Vidal’s 1962 adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play about the last Roman emperor.  The Oracle people can’t seem to put a foot wrong: if they do a show, it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s perfectly acted, it’s political without being doctrinaire—and it’s free.   This satire takes place on the final day before Rome falls to the Goths, and makes a powerful case that nothing better could happen in the world than for an empire—any empire—to fall.  You can see how the German Durrenmatt would have felt that way in 1949; you can see how Vidal would have felt that way in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and most important you can see how it applies today, when America’s determination to maintain its world primacy costs life after life for no apparent purpose.  Like The Vandal, this is a funny play with a serious purpose; like The Vandal, its director (here, Kasey Foster) has brought out the best from every member of a gifted company.  Kevin Cox is particularly good as the titular emperor, who turns out to be the proverbial wise fool, and Jeremy Trager’s turn as Otto Rupf, the pants-maker who will save the world (don’t ask), keeps things rolling merrily along.  A truly extraordinary experience, through November 22.

The hits

Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize and promptly collapsed into obscurity, perhaps because it hit too close to home in its examination of how badly our government operates.  (Has Washington gotten the message yet, do you suppose?  Try sending it again on November 4.)  Imagine “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” without the positive outcome, and you’ve got the plot of Anderson’s play: a brand-new idealistic new Senator goes up against the forces of graft and corruption with the help of a seen-it-all dame inspired by his example.  Only this time things don’t go quite as planned or hoped-for.  Like much material of the same vintage, 1933′s Both Your Houses strikes our ears as wordy to the point of redundancy.  (An audience used to ninety-minute dramas gets restless after Hour 2.)  Though director James Bohnen specializes in this kind of battle of ideas, the production doesn’t crackle as it should.  At the performance I saw David Darlow kept dropping his lines, and as his character is the moral center of the play any hesitation on his part undercuts the entire affair.  An interesting evening but not what it could have been.  Through November 9.

The Gravedigger at First Folio gets the jump on Halloween with this imagining of what happened to Frankenstein’s monster between the time he killed Mrs. Frankenstein and the moment he’s confronted by his creator somewhere in the frozen north.  Director Alison C. Vesely secures strong performances from her foursome of actors, especially the always-fine Craig Spidle as a hermit who shelters the monster.  But Joseph Zettelmaier’s whole play is just too damn earnest, with every character prating about love and redemption.  It would have been twice as good if it had been half as long, but as it is we have plenty of time to notice that these people keep reassuring one another of their potential and virtue.  Obviously Frankenstein is a moral tale, but I like my morals neat, without a lot of sentimental chaser.  Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design is excellent, and the spooky Mayslake mansion a fine setting, but the evening is less than the sum of its parts.  Through November 2.

Left on base

Smokefall is the Goodman’s remount of last year’s hit, written by flavor-of-the-month playwright Noah Haidle.  This production did not enable me to gather the source of his appeal.  Like The  Gravedigger, it features a lot of people talking to each other about love rather than helping the audience experience or understand that emotion.   When pre-term twins (Eric Slater and Guy Massey, superb as always) discuss the terrors of life from their safe location in utero, the play is witty and engaging; but nothing leads up to that moment and nothing issues forth from it.  What exactly is supposed to be so great about this play I couldn’t tell you, and it’s a waste of actors Katherine Keberlein and Mike Nussbaum.  If you want to make a play about how it’s hard but possible to live life to the fullest into old age, just do the story of Nussbaum’s life.