REVIEW: Hideous Progeny (LiveWire Chicago)

The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama

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LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents
       
Hideous Progeny
  
By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_05 Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.

It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.

Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.

Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.

The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.

Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.

Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.

Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)

 

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There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.

While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.

Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.

If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle.  The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_08 Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.

Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.

Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.

In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

 

  

        
        

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REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents
   
Dead Letter Office
   
by Phillip Dawkins
directed by
David Dieterich Gray
at
Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18  |  tickets: $17-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.

Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.

The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.

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Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.

The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.

It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.

Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

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Theater Thursday: Dead Letter Office at Dog and Pony

Thursday, June 17th

Dead Letter Office by Philip Dawkins

Conceived by Ben Viccellio

Dog & Pony Theatre at DCA Storefront Theater 

66 E. Randolph St., Chicago

deadletterofficeJoin Dog & Pony Theatre for a reception featuring food and drink on the mezzanine and stay for a performance of the world premiere commissioned work, Dead Letter Office. After the show you’re invited to stay for a talk-back session with the production team, focusing on both the business and artistic aspects of commissioning a new play.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.  Show begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are Pay-What-You-Can 

For reservations call 312-742-8497 or visit www.dcatheater.org/tickets

REVIEW: Doctor’s Dilemma (ShawChicago)

A timeless treatise on today’s healthcare debate?

 

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ShawChicago presents
 
Doctor’s Dilemma
 
Written by George Bernard Shaw
directed by Robert Scogin
DCA Studio Theatre, 78 E. Washington (map)
thru May 10th  |  tickets: $10-$22  | more info 

By Katy Walsh

Who to save? If allotted only enough serum to cure one patient, how to choose who is worthy of it? ShawChicago, in conjunction with DCA Studio Theatre in the Cultural Center, presents Doctor’s Dilemma. Illustrating a lifelong disdain for the healing profession, George Bernard Shaw pens a comedy about doctors debating the sanctity of healthcare for a price. Under the enchantment of a pretty lady, four doctors struggle with the decision to save her charming husband or their bumbling colleague.

shawportrait Although Shaw first produced the play in 1906, his viewpoints are still prevalent one hundred years later. Economics still influences healthcare in adequate coverage for the poor and research interests of the wealthy. Doctor’s Dilemma illustrates the timeless issues of healthcare and arrogant doctors; ShawChicago injects a talented cast. The result is a robust tonic sure to cure any ailment.

In the ShawChicago tradition, the show is a public reading. No costumes. No scenery. It’s just Shaw, Scogin and the ensemble. Under the direction of Robert Scogin, the entire cast adds their own version of razzle-dazzle. The doctors are a variety of superior condescension. Jack Hickey (Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington) is hilarious as the know-it-all physician with one basic prescription, “stimulate the phagocytes.” Hickey is riotous rambling his lunatic theories then stopping abruptly to utter “I’ve lost the thread of my conversation.” Will Clinger (Cutler Walpole) is in turn outrageous with his repeated diagnosis of ‘blood poisoning’ and his declaration that he is, “not a doctor. I’m a surgeon.” Skip Lundby (Sir Patrick Cullen) is the delightful retired doctor who starts an argument with, “when you’ve killed as many people as I have…” Matt Pen (Sir Colenso Ridgeon) is the smug bachelor with the God complex. The patient is Christian Gray (Louis Dubedat). Gray is the fast-talking scoundrel and the arrogant match for the doctors. In his immorality justification, Gray argues that lawyers threaten prison, parsons threaten damnation and doctors threaten death. Gray is deliciously unapologetic for his rogue ways. Barbara Zahora (Jennifer Dubedat) is the loyal wife and object of the doctors’ affections as she pleads for healthcare for her husband. In smaller roles but with superior accents, Mary Michell (Emmy) and Kaelan Strouse (Newspaper Man/Mr. Darby) are outstanding.

Sixteen years ago, ShawChicago started its artistic initiative with Doctor’s Dilemma in the DCA Studio Theatre in the Cultural Center. Back then, it was Clinton and healthcare. Now, it’s Obama and healthcare. But then and now and since 1906, Doctor’s Dilemma is a Shaw timeless classic.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Extra Credit:

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission.

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REVIEW: Cabaret (The Hypocrites’)

Willkommen to a darker, sexier ‘Cabaret’

 

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The Hypocrites Theatre presents
 
Cabaret
 

Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Directed by Matt Hawkins
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)

through May 23rd | tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The first thing you will notice about The Hypocrites’s production of Cabaret is the genderbending. The scene-stealing role of the emcee, who has been played by everyone from Joel Gray to Alan Cumming to Neil Patrick Harris, is now played by a woman (Jessie Fisher). And whereas the men always brought a certain effeminacy to the role, Fisher brings a cocky butchness without sacrificing her sensuality.

TheHypocrites_Cabaret_03 You could view this casting call as a way to pander to a more general audience, eliminating the homosexual overtones of the show’s ringmaster. But The Hypocrites’ version of the piece is still rife with in-your-face graphic gay sexuality, from the lingering kiss between the American Cliff (Michael Peters) and one of the cabaret boys to the completely unsubtle choreography, which includes a lot of mock copulation.

In fact, if anything, the choice to womanize the emcee adds an additional thematic element to the play, one that promotes the strength and courage of women and the misogyny of the Nazi state. This is most effective during the song “I Don’t Care Much.” Director Matt Hawkins places four masked Nazi soldiers around the emcee who watch her with cold, dead eyes. The emcee staggers around the stage, spitting at the men as she taunts them with the lyrics of the song, knowing full well that she is writing her own death sentence.

Fisher exudes confidence as the nightclub’s central figure She also has a clever wit, ad-libbing occasionally during some of the more light-hearted numbers such as “Willkommen.” Like her carriage on stage, her voice is vigorously energetic, proving to be one of the strongest in the cast.

Lindsay Leopold plays the manic Sally Bowles with feral-like fierceness. The character of Sally spans a spectrum of emotion, oftentimes displaying two distinct feelings at once: her external exuberance and her inner depression. Leopold straddles this spectrum well. For example, her rendition of “Cabaret” is not the joyful melody you may recall from the movie. Rather, it’s a melancholy rendition made all the more poignant when contrasted with the upbeat lyrics.

The costumes in the musical are basically a character unto themselves. Costume designer Alison Siple creates a cohesive aesthetic that combines ruffles and rags with garters and lace. The women look simply fantastic. However, the men did not get the same treatment. Whereas the women’s flamboyant costumes genuinely reflect the sexy cabaret atmosphere, the men’s costumes seem more like cartoonish afterthoughts.

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Hawkins direction is superb. The play moves along quickly, juggling various plotlines from the rise of the Nazi regime to Sally’s love affair with Cliff to the engagement of the landlady Frau Schneider. But it never feels hurried. The staging is also impressive. At the beginning of the play, the cabaret girls make grand entrances by sliding down poles, while near the end, the faceless Nazi guards stand menacingly along the catwalk above the stage.

The play is also done in a cabaret setting, providing ample intimacy for the audience and performers. Although most of the audience is relegated to risers, a few lucky patrons are able to sit at tables along the stage.

The Hypocrites Theatre’s production of Cabaret is dark, sexy and fabulous. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see the play in an intimate, cabaret-like setting, this is your chance. With great direction, singing and revealing costumes, the show will titillate and entertain before crash-landing into its inevitable, disturbing conclusion.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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REVIEW: Beautiful City (Theatre Mir)

Solid cast punctuates this urban fairytale

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Theatre Mir presents

Beautiful City

 

Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Rob Chambers
At Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph,
thru April 3rd
(more info)

By Katy Walsh

“Make no little plans” is a phrase coined by Chicago’s infamous urban planner, Daniel Burnham. In Theatre Mir’s play Beautiful City, lead character Tony Raft embraces this philosophy despite opposition from his architect, a witch and the mob.  Performed at the Storefront Theatre in conjunction with DCA Theatre and the Beautiful_City10Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Beautiful City is the story of each person’s quest to get what they want by overcoming ‘the simple ugly truth.’ Tony wants a grandiose shopping mall. His mobster mama wants more money. His architect wants to be healed. The witch wants urban renewal and the freedom to dig through garbage. Beautiful City interconnects three families in an urban fairy tale of betrayal, greed and redemption.

The entire cast has been solidly constructed. Here are some of the pillar performances: Yosh Hayashi (Tony Raft) impresses with his vigorous audacity over a shopping mall obsession. Splendidly rotten in Steep Theatre’s Hollowlands, Hayashi exploits the humor in his every diabolical depiction. It’s Gilbert Gottfried as Hannibal Lector. Walking up and down stairs in 3 inch heels, Rachel Slavick (Mary Raft) is tough. Except for a wonderful salad thrashing scene, Slavick plays it stone faced cold. Mira Vasiljevic (Gina Mae Sabatini) contorts her look with an ongoing skunk face in her portrayal of the witch. Physically and vocally, Vasiljevic showcases her character as a bizarre source of life’s truth. She’s hilarious! C. Sean Piereman (Paul Gallagher) is the one to be rescued in this modern day fable. In the first few scenes, Piereman’s pain is so uncomfortably real, one feels the need to call 911. Other high energy moments of dramedy are Jeremy Kahn (Stevie Moore) as a fast-talking punk, Kristen Secrist (Jane Sabatini) as a wacky hospital volunteer, Kurt Brocker (Rolly Moore) as a desperate thug and Megan Kohl (Dian Black) as the confident gum -chewing cop. It is stellar acting wrapped up in Whitney McBride’s character-perfected costumes.

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Director Rob Chambers maximizes the physical space and the script to establish the framework of this adult fairy tale. Chambers is working from the foundation laid by playwright George F. Walker. Walker illustrates the issues of gentrification with an entertaining myth of mobsters verses witches. The parts are there for a solid built fortress. To nail it, Walker needs to sand it down for refinement. Some of the scenes are longer than necessary. In particular, a pivotal end scene is overly explanatory. This technique feels Hollywood-esque in “dumbing it down for the mainstream.” There are also some transitional moments of clunkiness, like, the scene where Paul is in the witch’s store. When did he decide to seek her out? It’s like realizing you are already in a room when you thought you were walking down a corridor. Walker’s blueprint needs a hallway connecting smaller rooms to more effectively imagine city dwelling. Nonetheless, even without a script renovation, Mir Theatre’s Beautiful City is an entertaining lesson of urban renewal for the entire community.

Making his own contribution to our city landscape, Frank Lloyd Wright says, “eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful city left in the world.” Right with you, Frank!

Rating: ★★★

 

Post-show Discussions

  • Thursday, March 11, with cast and director Rob Chambers
  • Saturday, March 20, with Dr. Michael Bennett, executive director of DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center
  • Friday, March 26, with Al Gini, contributor at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and professor of philosophy and business ethics at Loyola University, Chicago

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REVIEW: Wiggerlover (DCA Theatre)

Race relations are a family affair

 photography by Belleville Garringer 

DCA Theatre and Jaz presents:

Wiggerlover

[white boy + black dad = grey areas]

Written and performed by James Anthony Zoccoli 
Directed and edited by
Andrea Fears 
Music by
Gregor Mortis
through February 22nd (more info)

review by Keith Ecker 

There seems to be three ways that art tackles issues of race.

The first is with a naïve lens that diminishes our external differences and plays up the clichéd notion that we are all the same on the inside. These same works tend to give the contradictory message that everyone is special in their own way, which begs the question how can we be the same yet all be unique little snowflakes? These works tend to be trite or targeted toward children or both.

PonyLeaguerThe second intellectualizes the concept of race, analyzing it in an effort to understand it. These are works that bring to mind sociological buzz terms and feel more like lectures than stories. In plays of this ilk, characters serve only as concepts, making the whole production about as interesting as a term paper come to life. What artists who construct these pieces fail to comprehend is that academia and intellectualism are useful to a point, but fall short of providing the critical insight that only comes with experience.

This brings up the third method—the experiential. In the realm of theatre, these are plays that do not have a sermon to deliver or a moral to preach. They aren’t arduous to sit through, and they don’t make you feel stupid by talking down to you. They are entertaining, digestible, full of substance and incredibly thought provoking.

Wiggerlover, a one-man auto-biographical show by James Anthony Zoccoli and playing at the Chicago DCA Studio Theater, embodies this third category.

The play is the story of Zoccoli’s childhood, specifically the year 1979, which for the young Zoccoli was indeed a seminal year. That’s when his white, Polish mother remarried Mr. Bell, a black man. With Zoccoli’s deadbeat Italian father out of the picture, the boy soon begins to call Mr. Bell dad, and in turn, Mr. Bell considers Zoccoli his son. Meanwhile, Zoccoli’s absentee father refers to his mother as a N-word lover, and, to his father’s dismay, Zoccoli proclaims he’s one too.

But life’s not easy when you’re white with a black father. Trying to develop a sense of identity is confusing, especially when the black kids you befriend forever treat you as an outsider.

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Wiggerlover works because of its honesty. Zoccoli has looked deep within himself to understand his identity and has the writing chops to convey this journey in a refreshingly simple and genuine manner. He’s also funny, which saves the show from drifting into sappy Hallmark-card territory. In addition, there’s no ideology being forced down the audience’s throat. Zoccoli knows we’re too smart for that, even if race is a complex topic. It’s great to see someone who respects the intelligence of his audience enough not to hold our hands.

Zoccoli also really knows how to command the stage. He’s a tall lanky guy, which makes him fun to watch. Also, he’s not afraid to show off spastic dance moves or sport a goofy childlike grin. This helps undercut the seriousness of the material, making it much sweeter to swallow than if the story were told with somber sincerity.

The play incorporates video projections and a number of sound cues. All this multimedia is timed perfectly and works to full effect. The disco and early hip hop sound bytes transport you to another time and another place, while also giving Zoccoli an opportunity to shift gears and launch into another fascinating story about his childhood.

Wiggerlover deftly strikes a wonderful balance of hilarious-meets-poignant. Whether you grew up on the South Side of Chicago or the northern suburbs, you’ll find something about his story that rings true to you.

Rating: ★★★★

 

Presented by JAZ

February 05, 2010 — February 22, 2010
DCA Studio Theatre (located within the Chicago Cultural Center)
$20; $15 for seniors and students

Read more about the writer/performer at the Wiggerlover Blog

Running Time: 1 hour (no intermission)

 

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