In a time of uncertainty, theatre artists have spent the past several months creating work that speaks to our times, simply through the format with which the theatre is delivered. Ingenuity has led us to telling stories in unforeseen circumstances, stories about immediate issues, such as fascism, connection, and sorrow.
Director and playwright Jacob Juntunen has brought all these subjects to the forefront in Contraband Theatre’s virtual production of “18 Months After November.” Presented online in a series of scenes made up of scattered Facetime calls and urgent conference call negotiations, the world of the production is not so far from our own. America is divided along political lines, as in our reality; only here, Juntunen has taken the recent fascist turns within our Congress and presidency, and spun them to terrifying conclusions. Thus, eighteen months after the presidential election, California has seceded from the Union, and liberal Emma (E.K. Doolin) is struggling to survive in Missouri, plotting with loved ones Anne (Stephanie Stroud) and Jen (Deanna Lee) to escape to California.
But driving across country now means facing blocks at various borders, fending off unwanted advances from those she stays with (Jennifer Remke and Minoru Jackson), or battling a bureaucrat (Peter Moore) who demands she give up her most vital supplies before crossing into into his territory. Academics and those in the LGBTQIA community are primary targets, but anyone is suspicious, even old friends you think you can trust.
A clever shift in the final minutes of the play completes the chilling warning of Juntunen’s script, and the intelligence of the recorded calls brings a full urgency to each step on Emma’s journey. Doolin carries her increasing fear and paranoia in steely reserve, and Moore can always be counted on to bring an untenable bargain out in his favor.
Editor Dustin Hageland creates a startling pace, cutting from scene to scene with precision, and letting the final moment land with clarity and crushing finality. Juntunen smartly suggests the space these characters inhabit off-line with a wide swat of backgrounds introducing the audience to an American on the verge of an apocalypse.
Theatre is always meant to speak to our current moment, and the warning of “18 Months After November” is meant for audiences now, if they will only listen, and choose a different path moving forward.
After the return to safety and health for the public, I wish a return to the theatre, to watch artists make magic by creating stories before our very eyes.
But there’s something I wish for even more. Theatre artists have been patient during the pandemic, as everyone pressed pause for the public good.
So what I wish for theatre practitioners is the coming year is that organizations and companies have their back by thinking about their good. Every artist I know has learned what it is to live their lives in completely different ways. They are now able to make dinner at a leisurely pace, rather than rushing to rehearsal. They know what it is to think about things larger than art. And they have learned how to tell stories over Zoom and radio and through archival work. And it’s time that the flexibility and sacrifices they’ve made are rewarded.
We need to respect theatre practitioners’ health and time. We have had time in the last year to agonize over the hectic schedules we usually put on our artists, and to reflect on how little equity we see on our stages, and on the whole, we must admit that we pay creators almost nothing for their efforts. It’s a New Year. There’s still time. Organizations and companies can create practices of equity and pay artists a livable wage. The time is now, while we have it. Let’s make a new way in a new year. That is my wish for 2021.
Recovery is coming in 2021. Will critics be able to restrain themselves? Or will we just fawn all over everybody?
As I casually leafed through the Bloomberg, boning up on airline regulators’ concerns over pilots ill-prepared to resume flying, I had a nagging feeling; what if my critiquing skills are totally shot, now? What happens if Chicago performers return triumphantly to the stage, but I am unable to levy fair criticism, or use MLA formatting? What if I submit a review that is rife with spelling errors, and they all make it to print?
Even if a critic were to hone their craft over months of quarantine, generating review after unread review of, I don’t know, their third re-watch of “Tiger King,” are they truly prepared? Would they be able to divorce themselves from their unchecked enthusiasm just to have Joe Exotic crooning at them about the glory of tigers and Carole Baskin’s missing husband? It will take practice and patience for critics to exercise required nonchalance.
My renewed appreciation of the life and health of the artists who will be the first to take their bows is what haunts me the most. I will probably break into sobs, excitable squeals, and will definitely give an “Ooooooh” and giggle at the first stage kiss I see. I am coming to terms with the fact that I will rave and gush. I will hand out stars and single-word quote lines like “Breathtaking!” or “Astounding!” to folks who may be rusty at best. I may give you the most favorable review of your career, and for this, I must ask that you bear with me and my half-baked assessments. We’re all doing the best we can with our meager tools.
When I was a teenager, I told people I wanted to be an artist because that meant I would never hurt anyone, never take anything from others not willingly offered, never harm strangers physically or emotionally. Years after earning my theatre degree and making a career as a playwright, I now know that art can impact and even hurt people in ways I never imagined as a young fan of the musicals my high school performed.
In the Chicago classic “Burning Bluebeard,” the actors retell and re-live the destruction of the 1903 Iroquois Theater. All they wanted to do, they tell their contemporary audience, is create moonlight. They wanted to bring magic to their early twentieth century audience just after Christmas. But it was their lighting scheme that set the curtains and the building alight. And it was an actor who advised audience members — mostly women and children — to stay in their seats and remain calm, rather than find a safe exit. It was an actor who forced open the backstage door that created a backdraft and consumed the audience.
What is the value of art in a moment of destruction? The Ruffians production, last year produced by Porchlight Music Theatre, asks this annually around late December, just as the original 1903 actors of “Mr. Bluebeard” presented their Christmas pantomime for an eager audience of families. This year, “Burning Bluebeard” is presented as an archival performance from the 2019 edition of the play, and it is an enlightening experience to watch this play, even from afar, in 2020.
The theaters are closed, stage manager Robert Murray (“Burning Bluebeard” playwright Jay Torrence) informs us after the lights rise. This comes by order of the mayor, because theaters across Chicago are deemed unsafe for groups to gather in. Already, goosebumps dotted my skin, as I recognized a parallel to our pandemic lives. But the show must go on, his fellow company members insist: Fancy Clown (Pamela Chermansky), a lover of melodrama and drawn-out emotional moments; Henry Gilfoil (Anthony Courser), who insists that his Mr. Bluebeard has psychology, and cannot just be a villain; Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters), a comedian who brought his young son to the day’s performance; and Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski), the aerialist ballerina, who drops crimson petals on the upper balcony during a regular, uninterrupted performance. They are aided in their recreation of events by the Faerie Queen (Crosby Sandoval), and they hope this time around, they will create moonlight and keep the audience safe.
As developed by the original company years ago, and directed by Halena Kays, this group of actors embraces the presentational aspects of early twentieth century performance by clowning with each other and the audience. Each character is introduced in bold strokes, one lighting a lighter to the fright of others; another spurting blood and strangling themselves to death in dark humor that comforts the viewer. By the time events turn serious, the audience is as off-kilter as the original audience might have been; when matters become life and death, not magic and the mundane, there is nothing anyone can do to change them.
Associate sound designer Robert Hornbostel supports these tonal shifts with well-timed shifts into Amy Winehouse, and even utilizing an eerie take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Lighting designer Maggie Fullilove-Nugent creates lanterns and a hanging bunch of Edison light bulbs that become menacing rather than magical by play’s end. And the choreography by Leah Urzendowski and Ariel Etana Trifuno turns from playful dance numbers to the creation of a burning audience of flailing arms and stomping feet.
By the end of “Burning Bluebeard,” you learn what made this theatrical event unforgettable. It wasn’t moonlight. It was the safety violations the actors could not anticipate, and though they feel responsible for what happened to their audience, they deserve to have their stories remembered, as they were not the ones who locked doors and gates; they were not the ones who built the building or oversold the show and crowded the aisles. In fact, their experience led to the creation of rules we still follow, to ensure safety in all theatre spaces. And the horror they witnessed also led to the creation of the crash bar on emergency doors in public places. They wanted to create something magical, but they became the harbingers of something much more important. Their tragedy is that they could not possibly save everyone, something that is true of artists in 2020, too. But like our current moment, they can still reach out with the resources they have, and tell stories that matter.
DICE RATING:d20 — “One Of The Best”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A moment in theatre history brought to life shows us now.
Show: “Burning Bluebeard”
Company: The Ruffians & Porchlight Music Theatre
Venue: Ruth E. Page Center for the Arts (1016 N Dearborn St)
One of my favorite offerings “lost” during Covid-19 quarantine are the low-key artist gatherings (usually pre-or post show) that have been a Strawdog specialty over the years. Linger around after the curtain goes down, and you could be treated to a reading of Twitter penned short plays, or (my favorite) a special skills night where actors perform the least often called-upon skills on their resumes. “The Four” feels less like a full-fledged production, but more like a Strawdog community check-in. There has been so much change in the past year (not only during quarantine, but due to changing performance spaces and the naming of a new artistic director), this live broadcast is a welcome, and literal, fireside chat.
Interim artistic director Kamille Dawkins revisits the founding principles that have guided each Strawdog production since the company’s inception in poetry, live, next to a backyard fire pit. Ensemble members Scott Danielson, Becca Levy, Michael Reyes and Dawkins herself deliver an ode to their long-standing company, with all the affection you’d reserve for a frail, sometimes slow-moving senior canine. The troupe then opens up the forum to their live audience, asking viewers what pillars, besides their original four (genuine connection, challenge, community, ensemble), are tugging at our consciences and drawing our focus today. In ritual burning, those ideas that viewers want to uphold or abandon, abhor or emulate all get a brief moment to be held, then thrown into the licking flames; from nothing to nothing.
This brief ritual might not lodge deep in the hearts of anyone outside of Strawdog’s intended circle of ensemble members and avid supporters, but if this theater has impacted your Chicago theater experience, it will feel like a welcome embrace.
DICE RATING: d10 –– “Worth Going To“
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Strawdog teases an entirely virtual season and leadership shake-up.
The culmination of a long-overdue social upheaval, the pandemic shuttering of the arts, and the labored reluctance of our leaders to change have highlighted what simple, actionable work could be happening right now, if we all got behind it. It’s not too much to ask to make room at our artistic tables, board rooms, and technical booth for BIPOC artists to lead, but it does mean taking a hard look at the state of your artistic team.
We asked team members if we see enough equity in the Theatre By Numbers creative circle, and the frank answer is no: we need BIPOC voices and leaders in our corner, and we need to foster a publication that makes racial equity a priority both in what we publish and who we hire. One way we hope to embody this? By ditching our randomization, and “loading our dice” to ensure we’re only reviewing theater by companies committed to honoring Black voices onstage and backstage. We won’t consider shows featuring majority white casts, or shows from companies with majority white artistic teams. We’re here to keep up the hard work and uncomfortable conversations that spur more thoughtful art.
We would like to host your voice on the Theatre By Numbers site. If you would like to see and review Chicago/Chicagoland theatre once it returns, with total control of what you want to write and how you want to write, please send a writing sample to email@example.com. As we currently generate no revenue, pay is only in free theatre tickets, but if you would like the platform for your voice, we would welcome you and provide as many writing assignments as you choose to take.
If you are a theatre-maker or company whose work you think we should see, please contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org. We roll the dice to create equality, but now we must load the dice to generate true equity. Please get in touch, and we will make sure you will be placed on the schedule.
Additionally, the Theatre By Numbers team will be making donations of $50 each to Brave Space Alliance and GoodKids Mad City. If you would like to join in on donations, look at the following links:
Lynn Nottage has tackled a variety of injustices, from factory layoffs harming a dedicated community of Pennsylvania workers in “Sweat” to the mutilation and dehumanization of women in the war-torn Democractic Republic of Congo in “Ruined.” Her work has always been political in dimension and personal in scope, with characters we care about claiming their pain and occasional triumph. The same is true of “Mlima’s Tale,” a Midwest premiere now being produced by Griffin Theatre — even when the play’s tragedy is that some characters do not care enough.
Though Mlima (David Goodloe) is a “big tusker” elephant, rather than a human being, he tells us about his life, his grandmother, his children, and his partner whom he loves. We identify with this creature who has a life independent of those who wish to harm him. We see him for who he is, a proud fighter and loving family figurehead. He lives on the Serengeti in Kenya, and while he is nominally protected by understaffed park rangers, poachers murder Mlima in the opening minutes of the play. This is a spoiler, but revealing such brutality to you is only part of Nottage’s project. Mlima’s body is buried, but his tusks are removed and sent into the city, where the chief of police (Lewon Johns) and shady businessmen (Michael Turrentine and Ben Chang) work to send the ivory out of the country and to an international buyer (Sarah Lo), ensnaring a conflicted ship captain (Collin McShane) and sneaky ivory dealer (Christopher Thomas Pow) along the way. As parts of Mlima travel to Malaysia and Vietnam, his spirit travels alongside all those who choose to ferry him. Mlima’s tusks are prized for their perfect symmetry, but that is all anyone sees of the ghost literally haunting them onstage; Mlima watches and waits and marks each transgressor with white chalk dust, announcing their sins to the audience.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson and movement designer Jacinda Ratcliffe do remarkable work with Goodloe. His death scene is horrifying to watch; he twitches, with one arm reaching out in warning to the elephants far ahead of him. He takes up space in quiet ways, always ready to claim his poachers — moving not quite as an elephant, and not quite as a man. He is mesmerizing in the role, and the connection between the destruction (and deconstruction) that happens to an elephant and the destruction that happens to men of color around the world is deeply apparent in Henderson’s staging. Every character involved handles Mlima’s tusks, but none of them see him standing right there.
As Mlima travels farther from home, his steps become less and less certain; he, too, is covered in white chalk and paint, and he slurs his words, unable to be who he is, dissected and taken violently from his life and home. It is a haunting sight. Even when the actors onstage all move together as one collective elephant, there is no release. Because there is no safety in numbers, only separation and advantage taken by others.
Nottage is the best living playwright in America, and her intelligent stagecraft is on full display here. With each two-handed scene — between poachers, between a park ranger and the chief of police, between a customs agent and the ship captain, between a buyer and seller — the stakes actually decrease. We want the park ranger to obtain Mlima’s tusks, but he is marked when he accepts selling the press a lie; he is marked despite his good intentions and desires for his country. When the ship captain accepts paying a bribe to get out of his smuggling operation, Mlima marks him; but his choice is less involved with Mlima, less connected to where he has traveled from. The farther Mlima gets from home, the easier it becomes for people to make ignorant, even willfully immoral decisions. This is how the world works, Nottage shows us. The less we see, the less we care about the world around us. And the less we care, the less willing we are to do the right thing. Which is why Mlima haunts us, and stays with us long after the play ends.
The ensemble is wonderful. Turrentine and Johns play poachers, relatives, and business acquaintances all with specificity and bite. Each relationship they create is distinct, and each relationship is tainted by power, experience, and opportunity. Pow is a delight as the less than honest moneymaker, who believes in beauty to the point that he cares little where Mlima’s tusks came from; and Chang is solid as a businessman, customs agent, and artist who don’t ask questions. When the ensemble becomes elephants, they are far more peaceful and purposeful than when they are humans. And when they become psychic tormentors to Mlima, their indifference is affecting.
Scenic designer Joy Ahn works with simple elements: ropes that can bind objects and cloths that can cover what isn’t meant to be seen. Jared Gooding’s lighting is simple and elegant, highlighting the lush difference between the plains and where Mlima ends up. L.J. Luthringer’s sound brings not only pounding urgency but jarring whispers from Mlima’s past life.
This production tells a complete and chilling tale about what is lost when we forget there are lives beyond our lives, and creatures and people that deserve protection beyond ourselves.
DICE RATING:d20 — “One Of The Best”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: An elephant’s tusks are poached, but his ghost haunts us.
C2E2 at first glance looks more like a theatrical event than a comic convention. The cosplay! The larger than life art! The group photographs of poses from TV shows, movies, and comic books! But look past the surface, and you will see a deeper vein of theatricality surging through the crowds of dedicated fans. There is a committed theatrical bent to C2E2’s events, and it started for me on the Friday of the convention at the Cards Against Humanity Theater space, in the McCormick Place convention center.
This year, a full slate of comedy improv and stand-up was showcased at the CAH Comedy Theater as a way of connecting nerdery with live performance. As a lover of comics and also a lover of performance, the coming together of two forms of passion was perfect for me. At 12:15 pm, I wandered into the Improvised Jane Austen performance in room S402. I have seen these ladies perform on a Tuesday evening at iO, and their wit and intelligence radiated even in the much larger space at McCormick. Taking cues on nouns and adjectives from the audience, the crew built a love story about an old maid at the age of 21 and her over-the-hill suitor at 35. Her brother is afraid of everything around them, including the nearby woods, and their parents are tragically delayed from her coming out party due to their horse have a slipped shoe in Bath. In addition to crafting a daffy plot that can be followed by even non-Austen fans, the troupe did a wonderful job roaming through the audience to amp up the energy, and their wit and goofiness shone through in their physical choices as well as their word play. If you get the chance to see them on any given Tuesday, you will be delighted.
Later that afternoon, I took in the sights and sounds of Storytown Improv, which performed at Family HQ on the open convention floor. These improv performers and their pianist make musicals and full plots up based on suggestions from their audience of children and families. It is a remarkable thing to watch songs be created on the spot, especially in an open room where it would be easy to get distracted by all the cosplay and competing surrounding you. The Storytown performers asked for suggestions of place, and the children in the audience chose to set their adventure on a cold mountain. Immediately, the actors brought the world they imagined to life, shivering as they sung about the cold, and wafting a white jacket to create blankets of snow. Our hero trudged through the mountain on a quest to be friends with a villainous corporate overlord by the name of Cold, and the crew helped children lead dance battles that resulted in an end to corporate greed and the beginning of beautiful friendship. It was exhilarating to watch, and the kids in the audience had a blast. I would highly recommend checking out Storytown Improv on any given Saturday at Stage 773. Theatre By Numbers is run by nerds and hopefully read by nerds.
If you happen to find yourself wondering what might be in it for you as a theatre fan at C2E2, just know there is so much more available than cosplay.
The delicacy and urgency of a crush is incredibly difficult to capture onstage, but in its joint production between Pride Arts Center and The Arc Theatre, “Stop Kiss” perfectly demonstrates how hard it can be to even stand near the one you love, especially if it is your best girlfriend, and you have never thought of yourself as queer. While the late nineties script suffers a bit from its vagueness about labels and connections, the direction and acting and intimacy work in this production makes it a must see.
Callie (Flavia Pallozzi) is a seasoned New Yorker homing Midwesterner Sara’s (Kylie Anderson) cat. The two strike up a friendship, as Callie takes Sara around her new neighborhood and reluctantly introduces Sara to her friend and sometimes boyfriend George (Shane Novoa Rhoades). Fast forward to a much less idyllic time, where Callie is speaking with a police detective (Joe Faifer), who is interrogating her about the attack she and Sara experienced from a strange man at four am in a park; they were rescued by bystander Mrs. Winsley (Sheila Landahl), but both are hurt and emotionally damaged. The play switches between scenes of flirting and unspoken feeling and frightening confrontations about Callie’s responsibility for the attack and her relationship with Sara. When Sara’s ex Peter (also Faifer) arrives at the hospital to help move Sara home to her parents, Callie must decide what she is willing to claim in order to be with Sara.
Son’s script is at once light and dark, both tense and warm. The earlier timeline, with Callie and Sara getting to know each other, often feels sitcom-esque in its witty wordplay and also its lack of forward momentum. The women are at a standstill with each other, trapped in 1998, and unable to fully express the changes they are experiencing emotionally. The present day scenes, a swirl of confusion surrounding the hate crime they experienced, have higher stakes and a stronger pull. And the contrast between the two doesn’t move the story forward as sharply as Son believes. There are a ton of short scenes, forcing actors and technicians into prolonged scenic changes that eat up the pacing and momentum of the script.
In another, quieter way, Son’s script loses some impact in the women lacking words to express themselves. By rarely addressing labels, or what will change about their lives, the play very much lives in a narrative where claiming of power is a negotiation, and she does not seem to want to interrogate what these women will become together. The in and out space Callie occupies creates an identity crisis, eloquently captured in a monologue where she begs a comatose Sara to tell her who she is, but Son is less interested in outcomes and more invested in the choice to begin something, and that may be frustrated to watch in 2020.
Director Kanomé Jones brings teasing, gentle performances out of the leads. Pallozzi as Callie seems less hesitant due to rut-sticking, and more scared out of her mind to be who she is. Anderson’s Sara is a breath of fresh air, bringing a warmth and incisiveness that never slides into the naivety that everyone presumes of her. Shane Novoa Rhoades is a charming and loyal presence, and Faifer excels at being pushy in the name of protecting citizens or protecting Sara. And Gaby Labotka’s intimacy work shines at highlighting both how well these women know each other, but what a large bridge in intimacy they still have to cross.
This production is a delicate balancing act. The quiet nature of its love story does not announce political ambition or timelessness, perhaps. But it does speak to how hard it can be to share your whole self with another person, to change fundamentally in order to be your best self. And that’s something worth witnessing onstage.
DICE RATING:d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Love blooms but lovers search for words to express love.
Show: “Stop Kiss”
Company: Pride Films and Plays in a co-production with The Arc Theatre
Venue: The Buena, Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway)
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Basketball means cultural clashes and introspection in this thrilling drama.
Lauren Yee’s dynamic script accompanies performances that hustle and jostle the audience, as a story of cross-cultural interaction grows into a full-blown tragedy … or a redemption story, depending on how you look at it. The light design and movement work created a world full of basketball players who wanted so much more than one last free-throw.
Show: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works”
Company: Idle Muse Theatre Company
Venue: The Edge Theater Off-Broadway (1133 W Catalpa Ave)
DICE RATING:d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”
TEN WORD SUMMARY:The impossible is given its due in an elegant production.
These past few seasons, every company has been programming “Measure For Measure.” What they should have been staging is “The Winter’s Tale,” adapted here with poetry from Shakespeare’s other works, resulting in a rollicking and thoughtful good time. The bear puppet was fantastical, and it made a group of young girls in my audience jump up at intermission and imitate its growl. The adaptation’s messages about tyranny and allowing dictators to turn you into yes people are well worth remembering at the end of 2019.
Show: “The Effect”
Company: Strawdog Theatre Company
Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)
DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Experiment in how romance forms, with alarming questions at play.
Strawdog’s sexy and startling examination of how medication shapes us, or how we shape ourselves around medication. Superb acting together with Lucy Prebble’s inquisitive, longing script made for a wonderful time spent examining my own prejudices and beliefs about what it means to identity as a person with a neurodiverse brain.
Show: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle”
Company: Jackalope Theatre Company
Venue: The Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway)
DICE RATING:d20 — “One Of The Best”
TEN WORD SUMMARY:Rap, reality, and absurdity combine in this electric comedy-drama.
A wonderful, scathing look at the commodification of entertainment and the ways white artists steal from African American artists. Lili-Anne Brown’s energetic staging felt just right in a production that featured not only MTV-style confessionals, but real direct address to the audience, as well as fake TV commercials that melded so strongly with reality, you left the production unsure what was or wasn’t a joke.
Show: “Women Of 4G”
Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company
Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 Howard St)
DICE RATING:d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY:What if Agatha Christie, but it happened in outer space?
Imagine Agatha Christie in space, and you have “Women of 4G.” A collection of crew debates alerting the authorities that their lone male member, the captain, has been murdered, and must confront abandoning their mission and their potential ability to save Earth. This production was a crackerjack mixing of genres, and had a lot of sly heart.