2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Winners!

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2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Recipients

Monday, June 6th 2011

32 different companies were recognized going into the 2011 non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards. The Hypocrites, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and Lifeline Theatre had the most nominations. Redtwist Theatre was close behind while scoring 3 out of the 6 Best Play Production nominations. The non-equity Jeff Awards got off to a bang at the Park West Monday night with a lively Red Carpet show broadcast online prior (pictures), hosted by Eric Roach and Anderson Lawfer. The awards show was hosted by Kevin Bellie of Circle Theatre. It kicked off with a musical number from Theo Ubique’s Cats. After the parade of nominees, and a Lady Gaga bit performed by Bellie, the awards were doled out. The awards did not go off without a hitch, as the Best Director of a Musical was at first awkwardly announced incorrectly. Here’s how everything played out:

2011 NON-EQUITY JEFF AWARD RECIPIENTS

PRODUCTION / PLAY

Man from Nebraska Redtwist Theatre 

PRODUCTION / MUSICAL

Cabaret – The Hypocrites

DIRECTOR / PLAY

Jimmy McDermott   (Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group)
James Palmer   (The Love of the Nightingale, Red Tape Theatre

DIRECTOR / MUSICAL

Matt Hawkins   (Cabaret, The Hypocrites)

ENSEMBLE

Shakespeare’s King Phycus, The Strange Tree Group w/ Lord Chamberlain’s Men

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Chuck Spencer in Man from Nebraska, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Andrew Mueller in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Caroline Neff in Helen of Troy, Steep Theatre Company
Nicole Wiesner in First Ladies, Trap Door Theatre

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Jessie Fisher in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / PLAY

Brian Perry in Shining City, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL

Courtney Crouse in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTNG ROLE / PLAY

Sara Pavlak in Agnes of God, Hubris Productions

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL OR REVUE

Kate Harris in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

NEW WORK

Emily Schwartz for The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group

NEW ADAPTATION

Robert Kauzlaric for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

CHOREOGRAPHY

Brenda Didier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

ORIGINAL INCIDENTAL MUSIC

Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs, Thea Lux, and Tara Sissom That Sordid Little Story,  The New Colony

MUSIC DIRECTION

Austin Cook for Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

SCENIC DESIGN

Alan Donahue for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Jared Moore for No Exit, The Hypocrites

COSTUME DESIGN

Matt Guthier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Alison Siple for Cabaret, The Hypocrites

SOUND DESIGN

Mikhail Fiksel for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

ARTISTIC SPECIALIZATION

Glen Aduikas, Rick Buesing, Mike Fletcher, Salvador Garcia, Stuart Hecht, David Hyman, Terry Jackson, Don Kerste, Bruce Phillips, Al Schilling, Lisi Stoessel, Eddy Wright – Robot design and engineering for Heddatron, Sideshow Theatre Company

Izumi Inaba: Makeup Design for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

  
  

Review: Chicago One-Minute Play Festival (Victory Gardens)

  
  

OMPF - One Minute Play Festival - Victory Gardens - banner

 

New Festival Showcases Short Works by Local Artists, Sampler-style

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

This May 15-16, Victory Gardens premiered Chicago’s first One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), a benefit event that featured bite-sized works by an eclectic mix of prominent and upcoming local theater artists. Creator and “curator” Dominic D’Andrea originally debuted the series in New York in 2007, where it has since grown to San Francisco and Los Angeles . For its first ever stop in the Midwest, considering the event’s magnitude–50 playwrights, 10 directors, and nearly 60 actors–this year’s showcase demonstrated promising potential for an exciting annual Chicago theater institution.

That is, if it finds a stronger footing. Micro-plays are nothing new, especially in the Windy City, long-time home to the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light and Second City; one set the bar for two-minute plays, and the other made one-joke flash bits a sketch trademark. D’Andrea and producer Will Rogers’ OMPF also rides off the larger 10-minute play trend. Their efforts to boil down theater even further, though, prove to be fruitful–sometimes even enlightening. Below is a list of the night’s highlights.

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

     
   The finest piece in the festival. A young boy expresses his anguish over his father’s looming death while tossing folded paper planes across the stage. His ability to speak is limited to the papers’ flight, leaving him choked and frustrated with each audible crash landing. In less than a minute, Carter encapsulates the panic of grief, and animates the cruel handicap children endure to express pain. Those planes approached visual poetry.

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

     
   A couple engaged in love making–some of it hilariously acrobatic–get their kink on by dirty-talking their favorite (or to cool things off, least favorite: (“raw kale…raw kale!”) foods. At first, it’s funny nonsense. Then, after you uncomfortably internalize your own link between taste/sexual satisfaction, it’s hysterical.

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

     
   You’re the hero in this monologue. The audience member to your right is the protagonist. Your left, the antagonist. Diaz’s simple, straight-forward instructions don’t feel like a gimmick. His inconclusive end ponders some sophisticated ideas about the broader implications of storytelling, ones that resonate long after the play’s 60 seconds are up.

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

     
   Sad pets are an easy go-to for emotional impact…but that doesn’t make using them any less effective. A dog reminisces about the good days with her very recently deceased owner. Confused, she brushes up against his dead body for affection…and if you don’t cry a little at the thought of that, then you’re a monster. Only a few high-pitched “aw’s” were heard in the house during an otherwise hushed fade-to-black.

Inequity, Jake Minton

     
   Penis envy comes early for two little boys (played by full-grown adults, of course) in a school bathroom: One stands proud, pants down and bare-butted at a urinal, while the other sits devastated, hiding his…well, you know. Minton makes a nice little joke about men’s biggest insecurity.

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

     
   A couple hashes out an argument by having a refereed 8 Mile-style slam, with Japanese poetry filling in for hip-hop. It’s a simple, wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the writing form’s serenity versus the needling aggravation of a relationship fight.

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

     
  Liberal sensibilities about prejudice get turned over on their heads when one easily dismissible stereotype gets paired with one that’s equally unfair, but–for many viewers–may hit a little closer to home. Those might sound like the makings for a didactic issues play. With the right amounts of humor and levity here, they aren’t.

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

     
   A mix-up at an airport luggage carousel leads to suspicion and accusations. Jacqmin doesn’t quite know how to end her play–what she settles for lets the air out of its balloon and betrays her otherwise solid work. Up until the final seconds, though, it’s fun stuff watching two men calmly navigate each other’s logic and contemplate one another’s mind games.

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

      
   As the name suggests, Hutchinson’s play takes place with the house and stage lights off. Her monologue discusses nyctophobia (fear of darkness) in friendly, clinical terms. Once she starts in about the ghastly things you could be imagining, it’s hard not to nervously giggle and realize you’re an adult who’s once again–briefly–afraid of the dark.

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

     
   You can spot a gag coming within the first few seconds of this context-free comedy. A line of actors take a swig from a water bottle and pass it on. Anticipation builds; titters slip. The fact that the punch line is exactly what you’d expect compounds the simple humor in this satisfying, straightforward piece.

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

     
   Anyone who’s experienced the unique isolation of a rural Midwest winter can attest to the truth and melancholy spoken in this eloquent monologue. A young man describes a blackened hand rising out of the snow. Hinderaker’s vivid image is striking on conflicting levels–it’s unsettling, somber, and in its own way, serene.

Free, Zayd Dohrn

     
   A United States Marine quietly bemoans the chaos of modern war and rejects America’s authoritative façade. His speech is upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and for some less common: notably, the futility of humanitarian efforts and the false hope instilled by the military’s hierarchy.

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

     
   A narrator gives up on his own story, much to the protagonist’s chagrin. Schwartz’s non-story leaves the nameless hero waiting and frustrated as the nonchalant storyteller signs off on her would-be adventure. Smart, funny metatheater.

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

     
   When you think about chairs having sex (though in any other context, why would you?) the word “whimsical” probably doesn’t come to mind. And yet, like an x-rated Fantasia, Bockley and director Jeffrey Stanton achieve just that. Annoyed by the noise of his enchanted furniture getting it on, an apartment owner sets out to end his two chairs’ tryst. His solution is delightfully absurd–the fact that it’s irresistibly adorable makes matters even stranger.

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

Now that the One-Minute Play Festival has taken its first entertaining, successful baby steps in Chicago, here’s what we at we’d would like to see from the show in its future incarnations…

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

Only a few plays in 2011 were noteworthy for really bucking traditional conventions. The message in Gloria Bond Clunie’s Falling about resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, wasn’t particularly moving or inspired, but her play stood out from its peers for its striking use of projections and puppetry. That left us with a question: How can the other works of 50 unique artists have looked so homogeneous? Talking animals, inner-monologues, contentless scenes and gripes about public transit bore the brunt of too many shows. No movement pieces? No one-minute musicals? Festival organizers take pride in the lack of dictated thematic guidelines for the playwrights (as they should). Still, there has to be a way to commission a more diverse body of work.

Super-titles:

Many of the short plays benefited from having the names of the shows known; some even took on new light. Dimmed houselights and tiny program font made seeing them impractical–unless you were really straining, you had to do without. An inexpensive or creative way to integrate the show names could further enrich the work.

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

Was there or was there not an intended arc to the evening? We couldn’t tell. Directors took on about 10 plays each, and their pieces were presented together in ten unique “clumps.” The order that clumps were presented in and the plays within them, though, did not have an obvious flow. Perhaps one wasn’t intended–regardless, having one might keep the night as a whole engaging.


The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival is produced as a benefit for Victory Gardens Fresh Squeezed, their alternative programming and audience engagement initiative. With a shared mission, both Fresh Squeezed and the festival aim to represent a wide and diverse range of playwrights, actors, and directors working in the great city of Chicago.

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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Review: The First (and Last) Musical on Mars (New Rock)

     
     

Too messy, even for schlock

     
     

Gina Sparacino and Meghan Phillpp in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

  
New Rock Theater presents
   
   
The First (and Last) Musical on Mars
   
Written by George Zarr
Directed by Kevin Hanna
at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I generally love schlock musical comedy. The emotions are elemental, the humor, raw, the plots, joyfully ridiculous. Yet, is it possible for schlock to be too schlock-y, even for schlock? Of course—and as Exhibit A, I present to you The First (and Last) Musical On Mars, onstage now at New Rock Theater. New Rock rocked Chicago twice with its utterly gnarly and awesome crowd-pleaser, Point Break Live! (our review Leah Isabel Tirado in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.★★★). But it seems that they’ve taken this fledgling comedy review too early from its nest.

Written and composed by former Sirius Satellite Radio spoken word maven George Zarr and directed by Kevin Hanna (musical direction Robert Ollis), The First (and Last) Musical On Mars still looks like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when in grows up. Angel Tuidor’s costuming and Ellen Ranney’s set design suggest heavy influences from 1970’s David Bowie and Roxy Music. Indeed, the use of glitter is almost blinding. But Zarr’s musical compositions are a hodge-podge of pop and Broadway. In fact, hodge-podge is a nice way of putting it. The tune “Sweet Alien Boy” is overlaid on the chord structure of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” but its execution just doesn’t rock. The first act finale, “Sibling Rivalry”, can’t be described as anything other than a messy attempt at pop-operetta.

As space opera, The First (and Last) Musical On Mars is just too jumbled and patched together to excite. Add awkward scene transitions and the show barely holds together. But it does have a few fun and tender moments. Rock star James (Sam Button-Harrison) is forcibly teleported to Mars for the coronation of twin princesses Hendrixia (Gina Sparacino) and Hollilia (Meghan Phillipp) and, ta-da, romantic entanglements ensue. It’s certainly fab to watch the girls zoom about in their ship to the song “Retro-Rocket Warp Speed.” Once James lands, a few tender, romantic moments stand out with the coy duet between him and Holliliah with “Different Beings, Different Worlds” and Button-Harrison’s warm reprise of “You Take Me to Paradise.” It must be noted that the entire cast’s voice quality is quite above standard for musical comedy review. Now, if they only had the material to match their talents.

     
Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr. Meghan Phillipp and Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

So far as comedy goes, Matthew Isler’s dry robot servant, Electrolux, stands out–and that’s mostly because he has great miniature signage that he flourishes most effectively. All the same, with the exception of brief one-liners like “Earth guys are easy!” the entire book badly needs a rewrite. Dallia Funkaster (Casey Kells) and Zabathoo (Leah Tirado) make decent evil villains, attempting to kill the princesses and take over Mars, but that has entirely to do with their level of enthusiasm and not the writing. Meanwhile, the Chorus (Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth) always comes across sweet and lovely, while Jonas Davidow has to be thanked just for wearing a g-string.

But it’s back to the drawing board for the creator. Or his venture into the heart of shlock will be, dare I say, lost in space.

  
  
Rating: ★½
   
  

Gina Sparacino, Meghan Phillpp, Sam Button-Harrison and Chorus Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

The First (and Last) Musical on Mars continues through June 19th at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map), with performances Fridays and Satrudays at 10pm and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-639-5316) or online at http://www.newrocktheater.com/tickets.htm.

  
 

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Review: Three Days of Rain (Backstage Theatre)

        
        

Another memorable production from Backstage

  
  

Rebekah Ward-Hays & John Henry Roberts - Three Days of Rain

   
Backstage Theatre Company presents
       

Three Days of Rain

  
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Matthew Reeder
at the
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $10-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

We are often fascinated by the story of who our parents were before they had children since it is essentially how we came to exist. It helps us understand the lives of the most influential people in your life, and it guides us in our own quest for love and self definition. This idea played a large role in Backstage Theatre Company’s Memory, their impressive first play of their season. Other times these stories, as is the case in Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain (known to many theatergoers as the play Julia Roberts flatly debuted in on Broadway), can be a great mystery to obsess upon for years. The overriding mystery is what binds six fascinating characters together played by three actors. Artistic Director Matthew Reeder’s direction in this Backstage production is strikingly human, intimate and traipses through these characters’ lives like a lone jazz trumpet traveling through time accompanied by well-suited recordings of Miles Davis doing the real thing.

Rebekah Ward-Hays & Tony BozzutoIn present day downtown Manhattan (or maybe more so the mid-90’s if you really do the math on years referenced) we meet Walker (John Henry Roberts) in a sparse spacious apartment. He is intellectual, searching and a narcissist. After disappearing in Italy his family had thought him dead. More specifically, his sister Nan (Rebekah Ward-Hays) and his old friend Pip (Tony Bozzuto) thought so. Upon finding his recently deceased father’s journal, Walker attempts to decipher the cryptic seemingly commonplace entries. Walker believes that his parents “married because by 1960 they had reached a certain age and they were the last ones left in the room.” Nan struggles with Walker’s return and his obsession with their father’s journal. Pip, a soap-opera star, has history with Nan, and Walker was – or still is – in love with him, causing interesting tension when any combination of the three of them is on stage.

Walker and Nan’s father Ned (also played by Roberts) was a great architect, or at least built one impressive house. Pip is the son of their father’s partner, Theo. In the second act Bozzuto, Roberts and Ward-Hays all take on the roles of their parents in the 1960’s. Greenberg’s writing is smart in how it takes certain words or phrases you hear in the first act and sprinkles them in the second act, showing you the roots of these ultimately poetic characters in linguistic parallels. We bear witness to all that Walker, Nan and Pip could not possibly know even if the stories were retold or handed down. They would have changed as all stories do through the course of history. Nevertheless, a few small words which Ned (Walker and Nan’s father) writes down carries all the weight in the world for each character involved in this play. Even if the meaning of those words died with Ned, they still have impacted the lives of these people profoundly whether the truth is known or not.

The performances of these six difficult characters to play are worthy. The hurdle is portraying two different characters that are clueless to what the other knows and yet finding the connection between them. John Henry Roberts was stiff at times on opening night and hit an occasional false note as Walker at first, but he eventually relaxed into the role and became fascinating during the ritual that ends the act. As Walker’s father, Ned, he brings a very different character to the stage that is vivacious and electric to watch. Ward-Hays is magnificent in her balance of anger and love as Nan, and then in her dreamier and more sexually charged performance as Lina. Bozzuto is dynamic displaying an exciting capability for detailed physical choices.

          
Tony Bozzuto & John Henry Roberts in Backstage Theatre's "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg. (photo: Hays)  Rebekah Ward-Hays & Tony Bozzuto in Backstage Theatre's "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg. (photo: Hays)
Tony Bozzuto in Backstage Theatre's "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg. (photo: Hays) Rebekah Ward-Hays & John Henry Roberts

Reeder makes a brilliant choice opening the second act by allowing the characters of Theo and Ned to spend the first couple minutes transforming the space in front of our eyes, bringing life into the abandoned apartment and turning it into an invigorating Manhattan architectural workspace of the 1960’s. It’s the same apartment as in the first act, but the makeover of the room is akin to time travel. Brandon Wardell’s set fills the Viaduct space perfectly, and his lighting on the windows does wonders to create the ambiance of the physical and emotional setting.

Greenberg’s non-linear storytelling is thought-provoking as only we, the audience, know the true gravitas of the words, “Three days of rain,” which Ned enters into his journal. However, perhaps this is the nature of history; it can never be retold exactly, nor needs to be. Walker and Nan come to their own necessary closure with their parents’ ambiguous history, and their father took his memories to the grave. What’s clear is that Backstage Theatre Company continues to excel in creating memories for theatergoers that are definitely unforgettable.

    
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Rebekah Ward-Hays & John Henry Roberts

Performances for Three Days of Rain run every Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and every Sunday at 3 p.m., from May 20th through June 25th. No performance June 16th, added performance Monday, June 6th at 7:00 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, senior tickets are $22, and student tickets (with a valid ID) are $10. Group rates are available. Tickets are available through the Viaduct Theatre by phone, (773) 296-6024. For more information about BackStage Theatre Company and Three Days of Rain, visit www.backstagetheatrecompany.org.

     

     
     

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Review: A Lesson Before Dying (Lincoln Square Theatre)

  
  

Stark simplicity amplifies Lincoln Squares’ Lesson

  
  

David Lawrence Hamilton and Barth Bennett (Jefferson) in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

  
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
   
A Lesson Before Dying
   
Written by Romulus Linney
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

To call Lincoln Square Theatre’s A Lesson Before Dying rudimentary would be the understatement of the year. The production values of the set design by director Kristina Schramm may be low, its look stark and rough around the edges. That, however, works in the production’s favor at critical moments—evoking dark poetry about a young black man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. The meat and potatoes of Lincoln Square’s offering lies in the excellent characterizations of its little known cast, some of whom make their Chicago debut David Lawrence and Elana Elyce in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying"with this production. Hence, their cumulative efforts can be considered a small diamond gleaming in an unexpected spot. Go to witness the resilient, earthy, intelligent and vital performances that fill the church basement space Lincoln Square Theatre calls home.

Set in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, Miss Emma (vividly played by Mary Helena) wants the local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (David Lawrence Hamilton) to intervene with her grandson Jefferson (Barth Bennett), who has just been sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store owner. At one point in his trial, Jefferson’s lawyer had argued that one might as well execute a hog as execute his client—from that point Jefferson only thinks of himself as a hog. Miss Emma hopes that the schoolteacher can speak to Jefferson and raise him up to believe in himself again as a man, so that he can die with dignity.

But Wiggins himself is a man burnt out on the futility of teaching in the rural South. The shack that stands for the schoolhouse he teaches in doesn’t have enough chalk to last through the year. His students spend more time playing with bugs than reading the old, used and worn out textbooks donated to them from white schools. His perspective on the impact he can make under such conditions has degenerated to impotent and sour cynicism. “Vivian, I’m dead here,” he tells his girlfriend, also a schoolteacher. But Vivian Baptiste (in a fresh and driven performance by Elana Elyce) pushes Wiggins to help Jefferson. Due to going through a divorce herself, Vivian cannot be sure of Wiggins, if he turns out to be someone people can’t depend upon—“Decent men back out. Decent men give up. Decent men change the rules.”

     
A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

The power of Wiggin’s story lies in the pressures upon him to be more than what he is – which he may be swayed by, but never really yields to. Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the novel by Earnest J. Gaines preserves Wiggins as a man filled with doubts, able to use only the most meager pedagogical tools at his disposal to draw Jefferson out. Vivian seems, at times, to want him to be a superman. The Rev. Ambrose (resonantly played by Rudolf D. Munro, III) definitely dislikes Wiggins’ secular leanings dominating Jefferson’s recovery and wishes there would be more God-talk involved in his redemption. But it’s the halting and uncertain nature of the schoolteacher’s mentality that allows him to be influenced by the person who matters most—the condemned man himself.

At the beginning, both Hamilton and Bennett’s play their characters too tight and shut down to allow for much emotional play. But both actors blossom into their roles organically—evincing profound, confrontational and revelatory moments the closer Jefferson comes to his day of execution. Flanked by the manipulative Sheriff Guidry (Ed Schultz) and the sympathetic Deputy Paul Bonin (Jereme Rhodes), Jefferson’s ability to recover himself and face his undeserved death becomes more about the transformation of a community than just his personal ordeal. Lincoln Square Theatre renders a poignant and profound drama on the value of human life that is more than worth the effort to seek it out.

     
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

Dates/Times: Continues thru June 11, with performances Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets: $20 ($12 students & seniors)
Purchase:
credit card via Brown Paper Tickets; cash and check at door;
Reservations:
773-275-7930; Location: 4754 N. Leavitt St. Chicago (map)

  
  

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Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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Review: Dot & Ziggy (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

     
     

A little cuteness, a little charm, a lot of predictability

  
  

008.mm_.tock_.dotziggy

  
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
   
Dot & Ziggy
   
Created by Linda Hartzell, Mark Perry
and the Seattle Children’s Theatre
Directed by Linda Hartzell
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $16-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Dot & Ziggy is Chicago Children’s Theatre’s first crack at targeting the baby and toddler audience—and, of course, those parents seeking a fun, interactive theatrical event to share with their youngest. Theater for the very young, age 6 months to 4 years, has been established in Europe and Australia for over two decades now and is just finding its audience in America, with Seattle and Minneapolis leading the way in baby and toddler theatre. Success for Dot & Ziggy could open the way to a whole new Chicago audience.

Created and directed by Linda Hartzell, Chicago Children’s Theatre also promotes Dot & Ziggy as childhood entertainment that doubles as “time well spent.” Clearly, the production was developed along early child development guidelines. The tried and true formulas first instigated by “Sesame Street” in the 1960s are all over this show. The production’s one variation from television lies in the moments it provides for interactive movement and sound. But the oft-repeated recognition of shapes, the recognition of opposites in language, as well as lessons on socialization – via the budding friendship between a ladybug, Dot (Roni Geva) and a skunk named Ziggy (Don Darryl Rivera) – are plainly safe, comfortable and predictable territory.

CCT-Dot-Ziggy-4_lo-resFar be it from me, not being a parent, to throw cold water on a theatrical experience that might be exactly what some parents want for their children—something that fits easily into parameters they’ve already been exposed to at home. Obviously, the young audience’s response to Dot and Ziggy’s friendship forms a far better indicator. Geva is charming in the dedicated earnestness with which she tries to make Ziggy see things her way. Rivera employs a hint of cheerful mischief in Ziggy’s opposition to Dot. It’s also a plus that Dot and Ziggy lead the audience with music from the lobby of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater to the upstairs theatre space. Once inside, Nicolas Davio’s fresh and simple musical accompaniment forms a strong underpinning to the storytelling. By far, watching the kids react to the material may be the show’s biggest entertainment value—an element that reinforces the communal nature of live theater, both for adults and the very young.

I do question, however, an over-reliance on the Sesame-Street-model or an over-dependency on sociological approaches when it comes to creating theater, all with the intent that it be “good for children.” What can be lost is wonder; what results is a production that looks like it was created more by a well-meaning committee than by theater artists. Also, at some point, the question of whether parents really need to spend $16 a ticket to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with their children comes into view. Dot & Ziggy does have a very endearing original song near its end and one can only hope that further works for very young people, centered on greater originality and creativity, will be forthcoming.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

baby watching Dot and Ziggy

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Dot & Ziggy continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays-Thursdays at 10am, Fridays-Sundays at 10am and 12pm. Tickets are $16 on weekdays and $18 on weekends, and can be purchased by phone (773-871-3000) or online.