Category Archives: Strawdog Theatre

We measure The Distance at Strawdog

Strawdog Theatre has a new show in a new home; how are they doing?  Plus the Jeff Committee has a new set of Equity nominations; how are they doing?  Inquiring minds want to know and the Dueling Critics want to tell you.


In brief: Strawdog’s In A Word and Steppenwolf’s The Flick

K. sez:

If women playwrights are neglected nationally (and I have no doubt they are), they’re nonetheless making a strong showing on Chicago stages.

In A Word at Strawdog

Lauren Yee’s 85-minute world premiere throws us into the miserable world of Fiona and Guy (Mary Winn Heider and John Ferrick), a married couple whose child was kidnapped two years before.  Fiona is still preoccupied—whether excessively or appropriately, depending on who you ask—with the details of the abduction and presumed death, while Guy is trying to move on.  The son appears in flashback, portrayed by Gabe Franken, who also performs every other role including the kidnapper, the detective, the school principal and Guy’s best friend.  To convey the stuck condition of the couple, especially Fiona, Yee uses staccato and repetition of words and  phrases—“get what’s coming to them,” “difficult” as a euphemism for the most profound problems.  The incantatory nature of the dialogue also illustrates the universal point that guilt and secrecy keep people stuck whereas the truth will—or at least, may—set them free.  Jess McLeod’s clever staging turns the single set into the half-dozen locations the characters occupy.  More important, her direction of the actors assures that we feel every incident as if it were happening to us.  A slightly hopeful ending doesn’t keep the situation from being, well, difficult, but it’s also genuine and thoughtful and moving.  Heider in particular is so good it’s hard to remember that she’s acting.  In A Word closes March 19; don’t let it pass you by.

The Flick at Steppenwolf

Annie Baker won the Pulitzer, the Obie and the Susan Smith Blackburn Playwriting Prize for this slice of life set in a movie theater which has seen better days.  It, too, has three main characters and it, too, explores the errors and betrayals which make intimacy so difficult.  But there the resemblance ends, as Baker and director Dexter Bullard use 3 hours and 10 minutes to make their points.  Bullard secures stunning performances from all concerned–Travis Turner as the college-age movie-lover turned theater janitor, Danny McCarthy as the old hand who trains him and Caroline Neff sometimes allied with one and sometimes with the other.  Three is an inherently unstable number in relationships, and Baker captures this in scene after scene—after scene, after scene.  The dialogue is wonderfully heard, and resonates as natural speech; but the fact that mopping up a movie theater is a Sisyphean task is clear long before Baker stops reminding us of it.  Moreover, it appears she couldn’t think of an ending—or rather, she thought of one and then added several more just in case.  The first act is completely absorbing and Jack Magaw’s scenic design is a thing of beauty: you sit down in your theater seat only to find yourself facing rows of theater seats.  And the actors are impeccable–Neff’s wild hip-hop dance alone is worth the price of admission.  At Steppenwolf through May 8.

We review Strawdog’s Robin Hood and Maid Marian, then anticipate the arrival of Hamilton

Headstrong, Heartfelt, A Must-See: The Projects at American Theatre Company

Plus, J. and K. describe the current building boom: new space for the Goodman’s educational programs, for Steppenwolf, for Writers Theater, even for tiny Factory Theater.  Strawdog may be compelled to move, TimeLine hopes to move, the Actors’ Gym expands into the old Next Theatre, and the last one standing when the music stops is–probably wise.


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.

Shattered Globe spins the true yarn of The Whaleship Essex, inspiration for Moby Dick

The company of The Whaleship Essex prepares to harpoon or be harpooned in the Shattered Globe production of Joe Forbrich’s play, directed by Lou Contey.

Jonathan and Kelly buckle on their swashes to critique The Whaleship Essex, Shattered Globe’s almost-world premiere of a play about the facts which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.  Is the production inspiring as well?  Only the duelists know for sure!

Then Jonathan recommends Fail/Safe at Strawdog and Kelly recommends Jane Eyre at Lifeline, though in fact each seconds the other’s recommendation.