Review: South Side of Heaven (Second City)

     
     

A morbid comedy of fate done to perfection

     
     

(L-R) Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Tim Robinson, Timothy Edward Mason, and Sam Richardson. Photo by Michael Brosilow

  
The Second City presents
  
South Side of Heaven
  
Directed by Billy Bungeroth
Musical direction by Julie Nichols
at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells (map)
open run  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Watching “Saturday Night Live” this past year I’ve tried hard to believe it’s on its way back to a quality decade. There are currently some talented cast members and writers, a few with Second City roots. However, I am consistently disappointed. Every sketch comes off as a stale parody of a brilliant sketch from past golden ages of the show. I was not exactly sure what was missing until I saw The Second City’s 99th revue, The South Side of Heaven. After over 50 years, Second City has managed to continue to stay current, take risks and find ways to still shock audiences through comedy. South Side shakes the status quo with writing that is absurd, truthful, and at (L-R) Holly Laurent, Sam Richardson • Photo by Michael Brosilow.times, refreshingly dark. Don’t expect a laugh-line at the end of each scene in this revue. There are moments of silence and reflection to take in comedy writing that is more than just a collection of sketches. Director Billy Bungeroth (critically acclaimed for his e.t.c. show still running, The Absolutely Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life our review ★★★½) maintains an aspect of comedy that is currently non-existent in the NBC counterpart to Second City: it remains vital.

Bungeroth of course has an unbelievably talented group of actors and writers in Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson. While Richardson gives what may be the best Obama impersonation I’ve ever seen, if there’s only one name to store away from this cast, Robinson is the one. He is bravely sardonic and juvenile as the outgoing Mayor Daley, complete with a flapping cape that is the Chicago flag. This is juxtaposed by Edgar Blackmon’s no-nonsense rapping version of Rahm Emanuel who, with a mob boss’ glare, reminds us to “Pay your taxes.” Robinson also showcases his commitment to his scene partner, which happens to be a Chipotle burrito, in one of the scenes I most identified with, along with a horde of other Chicagoans whose mouth waters at the glimpse of the gold foil wrapped delicacy on a billboard.

It also must be noted that, in part, what makes the casting of this show extraordinary is that there are two African-American actors, something Second City and other Chicago comedy venues fail at historically. The impact is that this allows the stereotypes of whites and blacks to be played to the edge; it also allows the African-American actors to play roles that have nothing to do with race, such as a truly heartfelt, hilarious and truthful segment featuring Robinson and Richardson. Robinson is a 30-something who still believes he’s going to play basketball for the Bulls, while Richardson is a United Center security guard who has aspirations of being a ninja. Heck, as he states, “I’m practically a ninja already.” The friendship and imagination in this scene plays out delightfully, especially to a Gen X and Gen Y crowd who may or may not still play NBA Jam on an old Sega Genesis.

Laurent and Rich complement each other perfectly in their scenes, and hold their own as the female voice in this male dominated cast. They never quite play the sex object—even as Kobe Bryant’s escorts they are still tongue-in-cheek as opinionated Chicago Polish babes. In another piece, Laurent is an English teacher hiding domestic issues which the smart outspoken Rich, as her student, sees through. The message in this scene attests to teaching our youth more facts about how the “real world” works. The segment could also hold its own as an incredible ten-minute play.

     
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Tim Robinson. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Edgar Blackmon •  Photo by Michael Brosilow
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson, Edgar Blackmon • Photo by Michael Brosilow

Thematically, South Side makes a comedic case for one of the nation’s largest problems. In America, people do not think of themselves as poor or middle class. Everyone is wealthy and successful and only in a temporary rut. We are constantly looking upward. People continue to overspend and over-live thinking that the future version of them will be rich enough to afford it. This is why people love American Idol and The Lottery, because it provides the illusion that “Joe Schmo” can become an overnight millionaire, or, why Mayor Daley fought so hard to get Chicago the Olympics, even when it wasn’t fiscally reasonable. South Side professes that people might try realizing that EVERYBODY’S life is miserable regardless of how perfect other people’s lives seem to be. While the show doesn’t entirely bash having dreams and aspirations, it does suggest that there are simply certain fates that cannot be altered. Perhaps only Cubs fans truly understand this notion, and in the best sketch of the night, the rousing debate between Cubs fans and Sox fans transcends the “Red Eye” obligatory June front cover and encroaches upon the territory of Jabari Asim (author of “The N-Word”).

The outrageous and darkly absurd also make several appearances throughout the night. Laurent has created a character reminiscent of Mary Catherine Gallagher, only the awkwardness is amped way up. A scene in with Robinson is the driver of a Chicago tourist horse drawn carriage ride (with Richardson dedicating all of himself to the part of the horse) goes to a place you don’t see coming, and keeps going. And Robinson earns the full exposure award of the night for unabashedly leaving nothing on stage as a captivating dancer.

(L-R) Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson • Photo by John McCloskeyAnother absolutely brilliant scene stars the quick witted Timothy Edward Mason as a TSA agent. Without giving too much away, this segment revolves around the new full body screening at airport security check-in sites. However, it becomes about so much more as it uses the audience, without their knowledge, to unquestionably prove how fragile our identities really are in the over exposed society we live in.

The technical and musical elements play an exceptionally large role in this production. Spotlights don’t always illuminate what we should be looking at. Julie B. Nichols’ music direction provides for very effective live accompaniment. Her transition music is a heavy quick dance beat that keeps the crowd lively. Sarah E. Ross’ set screams contemporary…and Apple Store, something that is both visually fresh and opens itself up to parody for the actors.

For those of you who treat Second City a little like Blue Man Group (you saw it 7 years ago and enjoyed it and you’d like to get back one day), do not make this mistake with South Side. All Second City shows are not created equal. There is no better way to come out of your winter hibernation than to laugh uncontrollably at this show. It may even make you change some of your Facebook privacy settings, reanalyze race in Chicago, and accept what life has dealt you with a stiff drink taking in this revue, created by some of the best in the world at what they do. You might even call them the “Montell Jordan” of comedy.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

(L-R) Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow

South Side of Heaven is in an open run at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells. Shows are Tuesday through Thursday 8PM, Friday and Saturday 8PM and 11PM, and Sunday 7PM. Tickets are $22 Sunday thru Thursday and $27 Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available by phone at (312) 337-3992 or online at www.SecondCity.com.

     
     

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REVIEW: Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies (Second City)

Spoiler Alert: It’s Good.

 

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Second City presents
  
Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies
   
directed by Matt Hovde
at
Second City, 1616 N. Wells (map)
through October 31st  |  tickets: $22-$27   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When I see a Second City revue, I watch it through two different lenses.

The first is the comedian. I’m a former Second City student, and I’ve done my share of stand-up, sketch and improv comedy around the city. So I can see the gears in motion as the actors are on stage. I know what reads as hokey, and I can spot a pot shot. But I can also identify what improv guru Del Close termed “truth in comedy,” that is the genuineness behind the joke.

SPOILER_ALERT_PR_003_Knuth The other filter is the audience member. There’s nothing less funny than deconstructing a joke, so I have to allow myself to sit back, pull the stick from out of my butt and enjoy the show. Besides, Second City gets a wide spectrum of attendees, from talent scouts looking for the next star to Schaumburgers.

Too hokey and you’ll trip my comedian sensor. Too self-aware and you’ll trip my audience sensor. Fortunately, Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies strikes a near perfect harmony.

At the show’s opening, a red button sits on stage. A push from a brave audience member gets things going. We witness a human machine and are told through voice over that at the end of the show everybody dies. What ensues is a well-staged and masterfully executed montage of brief scenes depicting actions and consequences that result in various people’s deaths.

We then go into sketch mode. It’s a father/son scene. The son (the expressive Tim Robinson) is getting cold feet at his wedding. His dad (Tim Mason) attempts to convince him of the wonders of marriage, specifically the benefit of being able to use your wife’s brain to remember things you can’t. The sketch relies a little too much on stereotypical representations of Neanderthal men, but it has its moments.

Next there’s an ensemble song about people who skim the news, illustrating that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Later, there’s a cute bit about a matching sweatpants-wearing couple (Robinson and Shelly Gossman) who are an embarrassment to their Michael Jackson-loving daughter (Emily Wilson).

The best sketch of the bunch is a bit where one employee (Robinson) hems and haws when breaking the bad news that his co-worker (Gossman) is being laid off. The sketch works because it’s simple—just two talking heads—that are sharing a real genuine connection. Also, Robinson’s antics and inflections are so hilarious that he even cracks himself up.

 

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Second City sketch revues by their nature must be fast-paced. The moment the energy drops in the room, you risk losing your audience. Director Matt Hovde manages to keep the show flowing even in scenes that stew a bit more, such as the heavier sketch about a woman (Grossman) who comes to terms with being an asshole after berating a man (Mason) who just lost his son.

The ensemble works well together, and there certainly are some standouts. It’s no surprise that Gossman was recently tapped to head East and write for “Saturday Night Live”. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robinson is on deck.

The one major criticism I have for the show is its antiquated reliance on racial jokes. Nearly every sketch with Edgar Blackmon (who was filling in for cast regular Sam Richardson) relied in part on the fact that he is black. True, nobody is colorblind when it comes to race. It’s an important and unavoidable element of our society. But when you beat it into the ground with every sketch with a black actor, you start feeling a bit uneasy—especially when the audience is almost entirely white.

Overall, whether you come from the entertainment industry or from Indiana, you’ll walk away laughing from Spoiler Alert.

    
    
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life (Second City etc)

Friggin’ hilarious

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The Second City e.t.c. presents
  
The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life
  
Directed by Bill Bungeroth
Musical direction by
Jesse Case
The Second City e.t.c., Piper’s Alley, 1608 N. Wells (map)
Open run  |  Tickets: $22–$27 |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Second City e.t.c.’s new revue, The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life, may not exactly live up to its boastful title, but it’s probably among the funniest times you can have for the price.

Photo_005_Melewski_Anthony_Sohn Like all such sketch-comedy shows, this one has its upsides and downsides, but when it works, it really clicks, and it works more often than not.

Much more musical than many Second City shows, Friggin’ offers some especially funny songs, delivered by a terrific cast who knows how to use their voices, backed by capable music director Jesse Case.

Beginning with a musical tribute to the "Good Old Days," the running joke of the revue, is a look back to the supposedly better days of the past — which seem to be the late 1990s, though few actual historical events are mentioned beyond general references to full employment, budget surpluses and no wars. That gives them ample scope to skewer the present, however. Christina Anthony, Beth Melewski and Mary Sohn, clad in stretch pants showing ample curves, take on the country’s idiotic "war on obesity" with a defiant song and dance on the joys of being "Rubenesque" that had nearly every woman in the audience cheering. Tom Flanigan is sidesplitting as a scat singer crooning to a group of dull-witted Tea Partiers. And Tim Baltz dramatically captures the all-encompassing and irrational rage of Obama haters in an office sketch.

Very little effort has gone into making this comedy politically balanced — the few digs at Dems are far outweighed by the arrows aimed at the increasingly easy targets of the right wing. I’m not sure this show would play so well in outside a liberal stronghold, but the Chicago audience ate it up. (Has any previous sitting administration ever been so lightly treated by comedians because their opponents made so much more compelling butts?)

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A few skits don’t deliver, such as one in which Flanigan and Anthony play a race-reversed doctor and nurse — beyond the initial surprise when you realize the white guy is playing a black man, there’s not much there.

The evening culminates with an overlong skit in which Brendan Jennings, wonderfully expressive throughout, time travels to his high-school prom with an audience volunteer. Jennings carries it off impressively, but the jokes don’t match the premise of a nerd who regrets having skipped the dance in the first place, and I imagine much depends on how well the volunteer plays up.

Overall, though, Director Bill Bungeroth has given us a fast-paced and hilarious look at those times that, for many of us, have been the worst of our lives.

     
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Written and performed by Christina Anthony, Tim Baltz, Tom Flanigan, Brendan Jennings, Beth Melewski and Mary Sohn

 

     
     

REVIEW: Rush Limbaugh! The Musical (Second City)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Pundit Sings

 RUSH- LtoR- Kevin Sciretta, Karla Beard, Colleen Murray, Mar

Second City e.t.c. presents

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical

book by Ed Furman
music/lyrics by
TJ Shanoff
directed by
Matt Hovde
through March 24th (more info)

review by Keith Ecker

RUSH- LtoR- Colleen Murray, MArk Sutton, Cayne Collier, Bump There’s an irony in juxtaposing Rush—the arena rock trio of Canadians who helped forge the musical genre known as progressive rock—with Rush Limbaugh—the overzealous, portly megalomaniac who helped forge the political movement known as neo-conservatism. This is the kind of sharp wit and pop-culture referencing that Second City’s newest play, Rush Limbaugh! The Musical, relies upon to penetrate through the mess that is today’s political landscape.

And just what is the topography of this landscape? Politicians and pundits have made careers out of capitalizing on fear, hate and anger. Religion is in the pocket of the self-proclaimed righteous who corrupt and manipulate their follower’s belief systems for their own gain. The two-party system gives voters a choice of crap and diet crap. All these are themes found in Rush Limbaugh, which at its greatest moments steps out from behind its satirical shield to reveal a genuinely pissed-off group of performers.

The musical focuses on the rise of Rush Limbaugh (Mark Sutton), from his humble beginnings as a rich hippie-hating nitwit in the 1960s to the mouthpiece for the evangelical Christian conservative movement.

RUSH-LtoR- Karla Beard, Mark SuttonOur tour guide on this journey is a woman with a Caribbean accent named Shasta (Karla L. Beard). She punctuates the play with parodies of Rush songs about Rush Limbaugh. While Rush is still young and floundering, Reverend Rightwing (Cayne Collier) steps in to help give the budding radio star a boost. The two forge a mutually beneficial relationship where Rush will use his own brand of Christian lunacy to win new converts to his radio show. Soon Rush becomes a voice to be reckoned with, successfully helping take down Bill Clinton. It is then that he’s on top of the world, ushering in a new Republican world order with the election of George W. Bush.

Donald Rumsfeld (also played by Collier) and Karl Rove (Bumper Carroll) make appearances as a bumbling Abbott and Costello duo while evil Anne Coulter (Colleen Murray) lurks in the shadows. There’s also a subplot involving Hillary Clinton (Murray) and Barney Frank (Kevin Sciretta), who serve as the weak, impotent voice of the left.

The acting is superb. Mark Sutton can muster up a vicious growl and a penetrating scowl on command. When he performs the on-air scenes in the makeshift radio booth, he really captures the despicable glee that the real Rush infuses into his racist diatribes, such as “How do you starve a black man? You hide his food stamps under his work boots.” But despite how wicked Sutton’s Rush might come off, you can’t resist watching him.

The supporting cast is rock solid. Beard has a voice on her that shines on the parody of the Dreamgirls tune “And I’m Telling You,” in which her character tells Rush that she’ll stay by his side even after the neo-conservative movement begins to lose steam. Murray successfully pulls off double duty as the weasely Anne Coulter and the manic Hillary Clinton, while Sciretta does a dead-on Barney Frank impression.

Overall, the writing (care of Ed Furman who also wrote Rod Blagojevich Superstar!) is strong. However, there are some terrible groaners that fall flat near the top of the play. The biggest flaw, though, are the Barney Frank lines, which amount to boring and trite homophobic comedy. It was strange to see these childish references to gay sex in a show that otherwise believed in the intelligence of the audience.

RUSH-LtoR- Cayne Collier, Mark Sutton, Collen Murray, Bumper RUSH-LtoR- Kevin Sciretta, Mark Sutton, Colleen Murray
RUSH- LtoR- Cayne Collier, Kevin Sciretta, Bumper Carroll, M RUSH- LtoR- Karla Beard, Kevin Sciretta, Colleen Murray, Mar

TJ Shanoff, who also worked on Rod Blagojevich Superstar!, wrote the music and lyrics, which are outstanding. From the Democrats shouting in punk rock fashion about how “fucked” their party is to Rush singing the praises of Oxycontin, the songs are deeply funny and veer away from obvious rhyme schemes that would normally spoil the joke.

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical is a political treatise told through musical comedy. Despite some base material that would be better left out of the play, you’ll find a lot of smart jokes to laugh at…unless you’re a Republican, in which case you might have been better off seeing the Rod Blagojevich production.

Rating: ★★★

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical at The Second City e.t.c. (1608 North Wells in Piper’s Alley, Chicago). previews Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 2:00pm, opening on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 8:30pm and will run Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm until March 24, 2010 at The Second City e.t.c.

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REVIEW: Second City’s “Taming of the Flu”

The Second City at 50: Good for what ails you

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The Second City presents

Taming of the Flu

Written and performed by Lauren Ash, Shelly Gossman, Anthony LeBlanc, Brad Morris, Andy St. Clair and Emily Wilson
Directed by Mick Napier
Open run (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

They may be 50 years old, but The Second City can still bring up some healthy laughs.

TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_008Most of us won’t get to go to The Second City’s big 50th anniversary celebration with its famous alumni this weekend — many events are sold out — but the troupe’s latter-day regulars do their predecessors proud with their anniversary mainstage revue, Taming of the Flu.

This is the kind of infectious comedy that made The Second City famous: Fast-paced, creative, topical, hilarious.

There are gags about swine flu*, of course, and health-care reform, with some needle-sharp jabs at insurance companies and politicians of all stripes. Some subtly and not-so-subtly humorous routines point up racial issues, the economic meltdown, war, terrorism and the other ills of our time.

Modern life gets its jibes, from the guy who’s addicted to his iPhone to the football player who taunts his opponents with Harry Potterisms to lesbian bachelorettes. In an anniversary mood, they look back over 50 years, comparing teenagers from 1959, ’79 and revisiting a 1950s bomb shelter.

Best of all are the Chicago-centric gags. Maybe it’s a return to The Second City’s roots or maybe it’s just that during this chilly and cash-strapped season they figure they don’t have to play to the tourists, but some of the best bits in this revue aim straight at the home crowd with nary any translation — such as a poignant paean to Chicago winters, lawn chairs and all. Chicago cops. Red-light cameras. The Olympics. Indiana casinos. Aldermanic candidates. A sidesplitting sketch covers local cabbies’ recent call for fare hikes.

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As with all revues, some sketches are funnier than others, but the jokes roll out nonstop, fast as sneezes. The six ensemble members keep ’em coming with  feverish timing, dead-on expression and keen comic gestalt.

Compared to Tamiflu, laughter may not be the best medicine, but I defy anyone to leave this show not feeling better than when he went in. If it doesn’t cure what ails you,* at least you’ll forget your suffering for a while.

Rating: ★★★★

TAMING_OF_THE_FLU_PR_006Notes: The Second City ticket prices are due to rise Jan. 1 to a minimum of $22 for general-admission seats and up to $46 for a new class of "premium" seats. Parking in the Piper’s Alley garage is $1 off with validation at the box office.

* Chicago Theater Blog does not advocate going to the theater while suffering with H1N1 flu or any other contagious disease. Fortunately, this show is in open run. Please stay home until after you have completely recovered, if only for the sake of any critics who may be in the audience. Gesundheit.

Think Fast: “High Fidelity”, Jude Law in “Hamlet”, oyster-eating at the theatre, “Spiderman” schadenfreude, etc.

 
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  • Another big Hollywood name has (once again) caught the Broadway bug: Jude Law is set to star in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet on September 12th, running through December 6th.  Jude Law previously received a Tony Award nomination for the 1995 play Indiscretions. More info here.
  • Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre, which dates back to 1662.  The excavations are part of an 8-million-euro project to reinstate the theatre on its original site. The school’s director, Patrick Sutton, said the excavations had uncovered part of the theatre’s original walls as well as stage timbers. Among the artifacts found were an actress’s ceramic wig curler, clay pipes, a broken wine bottle and oyster shells. “Oysters were obviously the popcorn of the day,” he suggested. More here.
  • Rumors started among the Broadway fanatics (okay, I guess you can count me in as a member) last week that the musical-in-the-works, Spiderman, the Musical, must be in trouble when it was announced that the multi-million dollar renovation of the Hilton Theater had been halted.  It was called a "cash-flow problem", which is corporate for, "we’re not putting up another cent." Accordingly, Broadway producer Kevin Davenport’s theatre blog “The Producer’s Perspective” has a snarky well-deserved post titled “Schadenfreude for Spider-Man?”. 

This week’s Chicago theater show openings/closings

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show openings

The 9/11 Report La Red Music Theatre

Bikerman and the Jewish Avenger Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Bye Bye Birdie Northwestern University Theater

Ching, Chong, Chinaman Silk Road Theatre Project

Fun O’Clock: A Very Special “That’s Weird Grandma” Barrel of Monkeys

Honest Steppenwolf Theatre

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying St. Celestine Theatre

Lies and LiarsTheatre Seven of Chicago

Lorita and Other Dances Theatre Building Chicago

The Mistress Cycle Apple Tree Theatre

Sex with Strangers Steppenwolf Theatre

Six Degrees of Separation Eclipse Theatre

Ski Dubai Steppenwolf Theatre

Waiting for Godot Redtwist Theatre

 

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show closings

Anti-Social Darwinism and High School Musical 4: Come Hell or Heil Water Donny’s Skybox

Boleros for the Disenchanted Goodman Theatre 

Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre

Cloclo Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

The Conduct of Life The Viaduct

Consume Gorilla Tango Theatre

A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Death Roast Annoyance Theatre

Hedda Gabler Raven Theatre

Hitched! Donny’s Skybox

Posers Donny’s Skybox

A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre

Super Happy Fun Show Corn Productions

Uncle Vanya TUTA Theatre Chicago

Wanted Gorilla Tango Theatre

What We May Be Gorilla Tango Theatre

special ticket offers

$15 tickets to The Great American Nudie Spectacular! by Scratch Media at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. TBC is offering a limited number of discount tickets for the following performances:  Friday, July 24, and Saturday, July 25, both at 10:30 p.m. The discount is available for these two performances only. Call the box office at 773-327-5252 and mention this offer.