“Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s” (Black Ensemble Theater + Steppenwolf Theatre)

Show: Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s

Company: Black Ensemble Theater & Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.

Backed by Black Ensemble company members and a small but mighty house band, our host for the evening, Black Ensemble Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor, invited Chicagoans of all stripes onto her own sacred ground to do some healing. Crafted by a growing collection of theater companies that are owned and operated by women and people of color, “Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s” came to life, and went immediately to battle against always present enemies: a tradition of exclusion, and a culture of silence.

The evening of theater and performance brought together voices from Teatro Vista, About Face Theatre, Black Ensemble Theater, Her Story Theatre, Firebrand Theatre, A-Squared Theatre, and several speakers from a very short list of black corporate executives. Just as much as this was an evening of underrepresented stories taking focus, it was a primer for a large audience of white supporters on the myriad ways we can show more support and be more aware of our own biases.

Black Ensemble company members regaled the collected crowd with original songs like “Four Hundred and Sixty Five Years” and “I Can’t Give Up Now”, that highlighted healing racial divides. Her Story Theatre implored us to start seeing the signs of sex trafficking and modern day slavery with “Money Make‘m $mile”, and Firebrand Theatre (a company devoted to musicals penned by women) shamed golden era musicals with “The Sexist Medley”.  About Face Theatre threw the glammest dance party ever to combat homophobia and gender/binary exclusion with their piece “Looking Out, Looking In”. And the sharpest skewers were saved for A-Squared Theatre and Teatro Vista, each of whom took great umbrage with normalized racial insensitivity for Asian and Latin cultures by lambasting micro-aggressions in sketches.

The most interesting viewpoints for me were from Angelique Powers , the Co-Founder of Enrich, and President of the Field Foundation, and Tyronne Stoudemire, Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion for the Hyatt Corporation. Powers spoke about the pitfalls and importance of arranging events targeted at addressing workplace racism, even though we all are ill-equipped to hold a healthy discussion on race. Stoudemire reminded us of some of the fallacies that prevent diversity efforts from taking hold, and the stigma that accompanies his work (“want to put your staffers to sleep? Invite them to a diversity seminar”). Inclusion at all levels, listening,  and understanding are the only way to let others into primarily white male institutions. This process takes constant work, and there is no easy resolution or quota to achieve,  but the result can mean that stories that may have once been dismissed will be heralded on the stage and everywhere else.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Putting the work of artists of color and women first. 

Review: “A New Brain” (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Show: A New Brain

Company: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Venue:  The No Exit Cafe (6970 N. Glenwood Ave.)

There is a metronome working overtime deep in the heart of Theo Ubique’s “A New Brain”, that keeps things so precise and expert, it’s almost like were in a operating theater, being tutored by a flock of luminaries. Playing space be damned, the cast and creative team bring this performance close enough to incorporate the whole audience into it. The players are bounding up and down your aisles, directing their lyrics sometimes solely to you, if you’re in the right place and the mood strikes them. Hell, if you ordered a beer, look again; the man who brought you your pint and glass a moment ago has now hoisted a small canvas sail, and sings aloofly to his one true love, a sailboat. The confidence and dexterity of a cast has never come together so well, and it’s worth more than all the spectacular effects money could buy.

In William Finn and James Lapine’s “A New Brain”, Gordon (Chase Heinemann) a children’s television show composer collapses during a lunch date with agent and friend, Rhoda (Tyler Symone). He discovers he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, and no choice but to undergo a life-threatening surgery to correct it. Gordon has a lot to sort out before he goes under the knife; his rocky relationship with sailing-obsessed Roger (Colin Schreier), the overprotectiveness of his mother, Mimi (Liz Norton),  his own doubts, brought to life by amphibian children’s show personality Mr. Bungee (Andy Brown), even a tenacious homeless woman looking for change (Veronica Garza). Last but not least, there’s the team of doctors and nurses who treat him (Kyle Ryan, Tommy Bullington, Holly Atwood and Danny Dwaine Wells II), bringing levity, cheer and vocal power during ensemble numbers.

The music reflects the crisis and return of Gordon’s particularly stream-of-consciousness brain. His messy life and lyrics are less disjointed when stung together with music director Jeremy Ramey’s gorgeous musical accompaniment. Likewise, choreographer Cameron Turner can turn a somber room into a mad-cap explosion of synapses firing. There’s just enough space to play tug-of-war with a Gertrude Stein book, or a rousing game of spin-the-gurney, so of course, we must. 

Director Fred Anzevino has assembled a collection of dynamic performers with astounding voices. Liz Norton stands out as Mimi, wringing the pathos out of her imagined 11 o’clock soliloquy, “The Music Still Plays On”, and Veronica Garza spares us no contempt with Lisa the Homeless Lady’s bitter plea for “Change”. Chase Heinemann may shoulder the heaviest load as as Gordon, but is so nimble in every number, he makes it look easy. And while every performer is fantastic on their own, the ensemble is an unstoppable force. Numbers like ‘Heart & Music’ and  reprise ‘Time & Music’ are so layered and enveloping you’ll find yourself floating above the rafters if you let go of the ride handrails. Don’t waste any energy fretting over how much you’ll enjoy the style or the subject matter or of this incredibly smart production, just go and experience this masterpiece first hand.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A musical whirlwind bursting out of its intimate venue seams

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “United Flight 232” (The House Theatre)

Show: United Flight 232

Company: The House Theatre

Venue:  The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Almost three decades after departure, The House Theatre gives us a glimpse into “United Flight 232”; it’s more than a factual account, more than a documentary, it’s a moment in the beating heart of a disaster in progress. We’re there to peer through the fuselage that still unravels for the few lucky men and women who walked out their flight’s burning wreckage alive and into a sunny Iowa cornfield one devastating day in the summer of 1989.

We follow head Flight Attendant Jan Murray (Brenda Barrie) Captain Al Hanes (Abu Ansari) and the hundreds of crew members, passengers, and hands on the ground that prevented doomed flight 232 from becoming the encompassing tragedy it surely would have been if luck had not intervened. When an explosion rips apart one engine on their passenger craft, the pilots (Abu Ansari, Joseph Sultani, Johnny Arena) think they may be able to manage to O’Hare airport with just their remaining engines. They soon find they are stranded in the air with no ability to bank, turn or pull up. The enormous plane must be coasted to an unpopulated crash landing zone in Sioux City, Iowa.  One pilot likens the experience to “surfing a 500 ton whale”.

When the extent of the damage becomes clear, the crew members (Jessica Dean Turner, Alice Da Cunha) are made aware of the shrinking likelihood that any of them will emerge from the aircraft (as the captain codes it) “standing up”. They have no choice to devote all their energy to staving panic among the passengers (Elana Elyse, Dan Lin, Carlos Alameda) by treating this as normal air trouble, and going about flight routines.

As this plane lumbers through the air to what will be a bloody, ruinous mess of seats, metal and fire, we get a moment with everyone. Unaccompanied minors, businesspeople, mechanics and air traffic controllers all cycle through their regrets and mistakes before they make touchdown. But there is no panic and very little hesitation among a crowd of hundreds solidified enough by their better instincts to blink the terror away and care for each other. There are those who perish, those who flee when they find their feet, and those who glimpse the safety of the corn, just off the tarmac, but go back in to help, because they can. 

Director and adapter Vanessa Stalling filters author Laurence Gonzales’ account of the crash (“Flight 232: A story of Disaster and Survival”) by borrowing some very effective storytelling from documentary features. The actors step into the footsteps of dozens of survivors, asked to retrace their steps and remember the minute details burned into the backs of their eyes over time. The trembling hands collecting scattered miniature vodka bottles. The infant without  a seat being held between her mother’s feet. Stalling has crafted a story far more powerful than a theatrical fictionalization when she allows her subject’s remembered experiences to take focus.

The cast does a great deal of the heavy lifting in this minimalist production. Statements have been gathered from hundreds of survivors, and with he flip of an internal switch, actors must go from retiree to frightened teenager as the tension ratchets up. Elana Elyse is a joy to watch as she volleys between regretful mom Martha Conant and rookie in the control tower, Kevin Bachman. Likewise, Abu Ansari is fantastic both as Captain Al Hanes and as the airport chaplain who meets passengers departing from he wreckage.

As Jan Brown, Brenda Barrie is at the center of everything, one hand in the engine, one hand on your tray tables. It’s no accident that we have her guidance, her clockwork memory as our default authority,  this is the very person you’d want managing your crisis, no matter what. Barrie builds an unbreakable veneer, just to allow us peeks through the cracks. In wonderful counterpoint, Jessica Dean Turner allows us behind the curtain of her fears as coach flight attendant Susan White, who’s sole focus is to see her family once more. And for a beam of weird and wonderful optimism, look no further than Dan Lin as coach passenger John Xiu who managed to rescue a number of passengers with purely accidental good instincts.

So, without delay, I can advise stowing any reservations you may have about crashing planes under your seat, and make plans to move about this cabin. Fair warning: you will need copious tissues where you’re going.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The human mechanics behind what goes wrong in the air.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Review: “Machinal” (Greenhouse Theater Center)

Show: Machinal

Company: Greenhouse Theater Center

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Die Roll: 10

My favorite sequence in Greenhouse Theater’s 1928 “Machinal” is at an unnamed bar at the site of just about everyone’s clandestine encounters. In one corner, a woman helps a friend in the family way (they arrange an abortion), near them is a man inviting another man to have a look at his Poe collection (join him for sex), all as our protagonist pairs off for an extra-marital affair. Each of them is allowing their impossible fantasy to play out, knowing that time spent away from the grooves they occupy in the great machine is fleeting, at best. They will have to let a few of their unproductive traits wither and die if they wish to keep surviving in relative comfort.

It is in that fleeting space, we keep meeting our protagonist, Helen or maybe Ms. A (Heather Chrisler); don’t worry, names don’t mean much in this dreamy, expressionist landscape. She’s employed as a stenographer, and unfortunately/incredibly for her, the boss (Sean Gallagher) develops a crush on her dainty hands. The problem? Helen recoils at his every touch. Still, when he proposes, she’s simply not in any position to turn him down, no matter how disgusted she is. In what seems like seconds, she’s married, and after a few more seconds, she’s the mother of a newborn girl. She’s always enveloped in the anxious call of eerie strings, until she meets a free-spirited lover (Cody Proctor), who, of course, cannot stay. He gives her a moment’s happiness, a potted plant, and a terrific idea for how to kill her unwanted husband. There’s always the pestering clack of typewriter keys to follow her, however, and train cars full of anonymous bodies too close for her to breathe free.

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 script is almost like watching what would happen in a person’s subconscious mind. Our protagonist only remembers her darkest and most exhilarating moments, burned into her memory with the intensity of regret and longing. What comes between those moments is the most beautiful nothing and strangeness that director Jacob Harvey and movement director Elizabeth Margolius can conjure with just light, eerie music and their actor’s bodies.

The performances from start to finish are what keep things tense, sometimes frighteningly so. Heather Chrisler at the center of it all, is quite amazing to take in as Helen. She has nothing to sell us, no persona to hide under, and no want for anything more than just an inch or two more of her own breathing space away from everyone. Her asthmatic physical constriction at her own confinement is downright compelling. She volleys between jovial husband extraordinaire, Sean Gallagher, who is carefree in the way only successful white men are allowed to be, and Cody Proctor, who unwittingly attracts where he means to repel women like Helen, as her lover.

There are no slouches in the show’s ensemble either; notably, Sarah Rachel Schol is a ferocious office efficiency tyrant, Jonah Winston is barely containable as both a judge and an excitable restaurant diner, and Scott Shimizu is a whirlwind both as a doctor and a philandering husband.

Despite its advanced age, “Machinal” still has a lot to say to us in our new century, and mines a very cut and dried true historic event for all the deep lonesomeness and fear that the courtroom stenographers tend to leave out.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Going to battle against the patriarchy? I hear ya, sister.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Luzia” (Cirque Du Soleil)

Show: Luzia

Company: Cirque Du Soleil

Venue:  The Grand Chapiteau, United Center (1901 W. Madison St.)

In the midst of a torrential Chicago downpour, Cirque Du Soleil’s newest ethereal circus production “Luzia” put down stakes and gave nature’s majesty a run for it’s money. Billed as a waking dream of Mexico, “Luzia” is the mash up of the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia) and is quite literally a celebration of bright, steaming sun showers and and their aftermath. All elements obey the gravitational pull of the encompassing shard-mirror disk hovering there like an open compact.  It beams solar rays, lunar beams and rotates like the flipping of a coin to release and swallow circus acts.

A clown tourist (Eric Fool Koller) sets the dream in motion by touching down in a field of Marigolds and turning an oversized wind-up toy crank, which bring all the stage mechanics (like rotating platforms and conveyor belts) to life. A giant-winged monarch (Shelli Epstein) is chased by a silver horse down her migratory path, flipping and spinning in the wind. A flock of deft red hummingbirds (Stephane Beauregard, Dominic Cruz, Devin Henderson, Marta Henderson, Michael Hottier, Maya Kesselman, and Ian Vazquez) run and dive through progressively smaller and more abundant emerald hoops. A trio of strapping male dancers (Anton Glazkov, Krzystof Holowenko, and Grzegorz Piotr Ros) dressed in their dance hall finest spin their female counterpart (Kelly MacDonald) so forcibly in their human centrifuges, you wonder how she’s able to walk in a straight line. And then comes the rain; a deluge pours from the grid above as Trapeze artist Enya White and Cyr wheel artist Angelica Bongiovanni weave in and out of the showers. 

But that’s not even the half: there’s also luchadores swinging in centrifuges (Krzystof Holowenko), impossibly synchronized footballers (Laura Biondo and Abou Traore), high-speed jugglers (Rudolph Janecek), contortionists (Aleksei Goloborodko), and a hair-flipping rain demigod (Benjamin Courtenay) climbing aerial straps in a dark Mayan sinkhole.

The soundscape is just as deft and changing as the circus artistry, and transforms a traditional Mariachi troupe into the perfect genre for each feat of agility. Jazzy noir elements creep in as the contortionist folds his spine in half. Opera notes lure a behemoth jaguar out into the open to drink from pristine green waters. They even dabble in electronica, helping the the high-speed juggler keep his speed up (you haven’t heard the bass drop until you’ve heard it dropped by a thundering tuba).

“Luzia” may not always paint a cohesive picture, but co-writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca and co-writer Julie Hamelin Finzi and the entire creative team have ensured each act can be boiled down to an orbit. The gentle circle of the Cyr wheel, spinning a soccer ball on an outstretched finger,  airborne somersaults arcing high with a pendulum’s swing, or the swift vault through the impossible circumference of hoop. Everything rotates, whirs to life with clockwork energy, and looks good from a hundred angles. It’s beautiful, right down to the giant red Papal Picado curtain, meant to emulate bright crepe paper party banners, and indicate something amazing is on the way.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Arid plains. Sweltering marshlands, Welcome to Mexico, pack your umbrella 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Nance” (Pride Films and Plays)

Show: The Nance

Company: Pride Films and Plays

Venue: Pride Arts Center (The Broadway), 4139 N. Broadway

Some theater is so compelling, timely and complicated, you can’t wait to dissect it like the frog in your AP biology examination tray. After seeing Pride Films and Play’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance”, the story of a performer both embracing and at odds with his stage persona, I wanted a deep look into this frog’s digestive tract- I mean, into the history of New York burlesque theater, and the titular stage ‘Nance’. For as much scrutiny as “The Nance” characters face at the famed Irving Place burlesque theater, the stereotypical effeminate gay character has had a long tenure in films, plays and television; but the question that author Beane poses is, what if a burlesque ‘Nance’ was portrayed not by a straight stage comic, but a gay performer, as a means of placing a toe juuuust outside the closet in the repressive 1930’s?

At the onset of “The Nance”, Chauncey Miles (played with fantastic world-weariness by Vince Kracht) is at the apex of popularity on the 1930’s burlesque circuit for his extremely effeminate comedy stylings. The cost of doing this kind of show business as morals-and-ethics Czar Paul Moss begins cracking down on deviance onstage is utter secrecy and caution. However, when Chauncy meets Ned (Royen Kent), his private world begins to open up. The two men embark on a relationship when all they can usually expect is to meet lovers quickly under the watchful gaze of policemen at the Automat. They find legitimacy denied them at every turn, and while Chauncy has come to expect this on a personal level, he cannot stomach to see his act suppressed one bit. He and his onstage cohorts (Patrick Rybarczyk, Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Steph Vondell, and Melissa Young) feel the sting of closing avenues for their racy exploits. What will survive the crack-down is only what is nimble and can change with the times. And that’s the question: will Chauncy survive?

Director John Nasca and music director Robert Ollis have their work cut out for them in this fantastically compelling piece of theater, but have spared no expense in putting us at a 1930’s burlesque review, complete with exposed bulb footlights and a tiny but boisterous house band. The costumes are big, gaudy and faces are covered in bright greasepaint. This is one production I hope audiences feel enough at home to get into the burlesque hooting and hollering.

The show really rests in the capable hands of Vince Kracht, the simultaneously winning and conflicted Chauncy. His self destruction comes from his propensity to side with those government entities that have labeled his act stage deviance and jailed him. Unlike communist leaning Sylvie (Melissa Young) or naive Ned, Chauncy is inclined to agree that he is a social menace, only that he ought be recognized as a talented one. He holds to his belief that nothing he does will alter public opinion of him, and his brand of maligned comedy will come back with time. Though anger and sadness fuel Chauncy, Vince Kracht maintains a mad-cap glee throughout. Even as he chooses passivity, inaction, and says to the man he loves, “I want to be used and discarded because I like it. It’s what I deserve.”

You hope for Chauncy what you would hope for anyone that has placed themselves beyond rescue’s reach; that the pleas of the activists and bleeding hearts in his wake do something to turn his tides.

“The Nance” is mirth and heartbreak. It’s the last laugh you will have before your world falls apart. It’s a quick and dirty vaudeville revue wrapped in a crisp, tailored jacket. You will love it, and it will hurt you.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: When it’s not the act that’s too risqué, it’s you.  

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “King Ubu” (Organic Theater Company)

Show: King Ubu

Company: Organic Theater Company

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre Center (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.)

Organic Theater Company and adaptor/director Alexander Gelman have entered the arena of absurd farce with Alfred Jarry’s “King Ubu”, the tale of a would-be Macbeth brought low by cruelty and incompetence. They’re hoping that we’ve also got an appetite for a good send up of one of the most deluded modern men to hold public office in the United States (I don’t have to give him the satisfaction of printing his name, do I? Good).

The problem may be fatigue, it may be toothless parody, or it may be the sour taste of our most unattainable revenge fantasies playing out in front of us as the title couple is besieged and run out of creation on a rickety boat. Whatever it was, something about obnoxious King Ubu’s short, bloody reign doesn’t quite land with the punch it needs.

In “King Ubu” Ma and Pa Ubu (Alys Dickerson and Joel Moses) see an easy path to ultimate power over the country of Foland laid out in front of them. They just have to murder benevolent King Wenceslas (Adam Zaininger), his queen (Matthew Romriell), his son Beaujolais (Kearstyn Keller), who- oh, darn, the little bugger got away. No matter! They still have all the power of Colonel Baseboard (Colin Jackson) behind them, and all the land and gold they can force from the hands of their increasingly angry subjects. While devoid of charisma, wisdom or any understanding of how their country functions, Ma and Pa Ubu are overflowing with cruelty to make up for it. The royal couple soon discover that when loyalty no longer holds sway, their subjects are only too glad to wage war with them.

What “Ubu” has going for it is a fountain of ingenuity and a wildly dexterous cast, with Joel Moses, able to clear Ubu’s way forward with the power of noxious gas, sallow eyes and a mighty prosthetic belly. Alys Dickerson steps in as Ma Ubu, the brains of the outfit, and conniver in chief. Other ensemble notables are Kearstyn Keller as Beaujolais, really selling her swordsmanship (I should mention: there are no swords, all deaths are administered by a children’s hand-slapping game) and Adam Zaininger, who’d take home a statue if there were a Jeff award for sexiest horse.

Where the show falters is is in it’s mild flirtation with sending up our current president. Every chance he gets, Ubu will insert a hashtag-ready rejoinder proclaiming his leadership style the be big league, or insisting “I have a good brain, believe me.” It’s meant to garner laughs, and the comparison is apt enough, but thanks to the complete saturation of White House dealings, a once laughable man has drained us all of good will. However, if  there were anything adaptor Alexander Gelman could do to silence the ever-yammering presidential maw, I’d line up for a ticket, pronto.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Some despots need to be skewered on a sharper stick. 

DICE RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Stop Kiss” (The Cuckoo’s Theater Project)

Show: Stop Kiss

Company: The Cuckoo’s Theater Project

Venue:  1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Die Roll: 7

Cuckoo’s Theater Project and director Angela Forshee have taken great effort to transport us to 1998 with their current production of Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss”. They play a killer list of late 90’s acoustic songs, and  deck characters out in fuzzy and midriff-baring threads (the work of sound designer Gail Gallagher and costume designer Asha McAllister). But aside from a few references to Giuliani and the steady ‘brrring’ of a landline phone, Diana Son’s modern romance still feels as modern as it was meant to feel more than seventeen years ago.

In “Stop Kiss”, Callie (Winter Sherrod), a seasoned New Yorker, who hates her job as a traffic reporter, and is mostly ambivalent about her friends, takes a recent transplant Sara (Jackie Seijo) under her wing, in an uncharacteristic move. Over time, the two very different women develop an appreciation for each other that defies explanation. They need each other more than their sorta-exes, George (David Towne) and Peter (Nathan Wainwright), that’s certain. And there’s no one that either of them can turn to that cares for them half as much. But just as these two straight women venture to ask if they’re in love, their lives are put on brutal pause when Sara becomes the victim of homophobic violence. All of a sudden, the prying eyes of the authorities and extended families are scrutinizing their every move. If Callie wants Sara to remain in her life, she’ll have to fight for it.

Jackie Seijo is warm, decisive and blunt as Sara, who has sunk her teeth into a brand new city, new life and new friends, hoping to forget everything she left behind. The energy that Seijo brings to Sara after she’s been incapacitated is just as potent; the self assured woman is still there, even when she can’t open her mouth to speak.  Conversely, Winter Sherrod is a fantastic mess as Callie, who regards every phone call and door buzz as open blinds shedding light on a life she’s not particularly proud of. Even after Sara is the victim of violence, Callie struggles to own herself in the face of a deluge of strange new faces, all judging her harshly, she assumes.

With this rendition of “Stop Kiss”, Angela Forshee  and the folks at Cuckoo’s Theater Project have brought a thoughtful, relevant production onto the Chicago theater landscape. If you enjoy seeing more work from artists of color, artists on the LGBTQ spectrum and feminist artists, you can show your support for them all by catching “Stop Kiss”.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Tragedy strikes a new love before it can take form. 

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Sycamore” (Raven Theatre Company)

Show: Sycamore

Company: Raven Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 11

The Raven has turned out a miniature work of art in the new world premiere of Sarah Sander’s “Sycamore”. Despite the need for a few touch-ups, it’s a lovely introduction to a hyper-modern theatrical family that bears the mark of a generation not hampered by the name hang-ups you’d expect from say, William Inge or Paula Vogel. The households in “Sycamore” accept their children, even if they don’t understand their sexual preferences or can’t step in when they make a poor decision. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to keep these parents and children at odds.

In “Sycamore”, two affluent, suburban families find themselves becoming too close to expect neighborly privacy, or to properly hide secrets that loom too close to the surface. John (Johnathan Nieves) and his mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez) struggle under the weight of their novelty as former artists, city dwellers, and accidental bohemians. Meanwhile, the teen siblings next door, Celia (Selina Fillinger) and Henry Jacobs (Julian Larach) tread very carefully around their well-meaning parents Louise and David (Robyn Coffin and Tom Hickey), but mostly around one another. A recent traumatic event keeps them on their best behavior, until John appears and both Celia and Henry become a little infatuated.

But, order must be kept and everyone on stage feels obligated to cling to their own status quo, rather than embrace the growing desires that hide just under the surface. Celia tries to squash her growing interest in John out of respect for her brother, who she blames herself for hurting and sending into a tailspin. At the same time, Henry, well aware that there’s a romantic spark that is not focused on him, tries to escape the despair that almost succeeded in engulfing him once. Parents Jocelyn, Louise and David aren’t immune to the turmoil, either, and fester unhappily with their children in the same uneasiness. They mull returning to unsatisfying jobs, and loneliness despite being surrounded by their children and spouses. There’s an undercurrent of envy that crackles like a bolt of lightning seeking out a ground current. Something has to snap soon.

“Sycamore’s” strengths and emotional depths are solidified by a cast of ridiculously talented young actors.  Julian Larach gives Henry the apprehensive energy of a deer leaving the safety of the woods; he fears his own strong feelings more than anything. Johnathan Nieves is both sides of a free-spirited coin as John, at home in an emotional minefield, but vastly unprepared for the fallout. And Selina Fillinger is the real ticking time bomb of “Sycamore”. As Celia she puts herself under so much duress to be a rock for her brother that we can see the cracks forming as soon as we meet her.

On paper, “Sycamore” has a problem with homogeny. Characters speak in the same white, affluent cadence and struggle with very elite circumstances. Director Devon De Mayo combats this with a superb color-conscious cast, and allowing the actors help us find ourselves onstage. You’ll experience fantastic moments of authentic awkwardness, compelling performers sweating out modern dissatisfaction, and a visually stunning stage to house them all out in the open.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: For this patched-up family, returning to normal won’t do.

DICE RATINGd10- Worth Going To

Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

This has been a banner year for the amount of thought-provoking and ground breaking shows I have been ridiculously inspired by. I am so excited about the shows and theater companies that have seen Chicago’s struggle with making room for roles for people of color onstage and off. (A recent survey* of 71 Chicago theater companies in 2016 found over 60% of those surveyed had not showcased the work of a single director of color, and 47% had chosen seasons featuring only white playwrights. I sought out shows that embraced their role in bringing everyone’s stories to life, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or ability, and thanks to Theatre By Numbers (who’s assignments I will miss like the dickens), I got to see a good number of gems by die roll!

#1

Show: “East Texas Hot Links”

Company: Writers Theatre

Venue: Writers Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Open, festering brutality, administered close enough to implicate us all. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

In this story of a quiet night gone irreversibly wrong, actors Tyla Abercrumbie and Kelvin Roston, Jr. ratchet up Charlesetta and Roy’s sexually tense arguments, you don’t expect the come-ons might be the only thing to bring you solace when their world is rocked. When Luce Metrius puffs up his chest as Delmus, annoying his elders with promises to leave them all in the dust, you don’t anticipate that you might rally instantly to him when he becomes a target of violence. You might feel kinship, like I did, with Namir Smallwood as XL, the odd man out, who can’t seem to control his provoking nature. And you might regret that impulse with every fiber of your being when you see exactly what XL is capable of. The heart of East Texas Hot Links lies with the unassuming Alfred H. Wilson as Columbus; in a way, the story centers on how far his forgiving nature will stretch before it snaps. There is something truly affecting to be shown that you don’t exist apart from an active racist brutality that still thrives in the open. Hate is easy to compartmentalize when acts of violence and racism are distant blips on a social landscape far from you. But East Texas Hot Links brings the blood of black men and women close enough to stain your dress shoes, and dares you to look away.

#2

Show: “The Promise of a Rose Garden”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: City Lit Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Female, armed and dangerous: drop and give them 20, maggots.

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve. The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful, with stand outs Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion.

#3

Show: “Matchmaker”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: So much whimsey, it hardly needs ‘Dollys’ cloying musical numbers. 

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The “Matchmaker” ensemble is nothing short of incredible. They finesse themselves into larger-than-life ridiculousness sometimes with little more than throwing on a gaudy purple cape or by stealing a jar of pickles. Allan Gilmore storms in and goes toe-to-toe with everyone he meets as Vandergelder; his bluster is delightful to watch. Likewise, Kristine Nielsen is so unrelentingly winning as Dolly, I found myself wracked with want of a fairy godmother to pluck me from normalcy and place me in an adventure. Another ingenious turn comes from Anita Hollander, who plays a multitude of roles (an elderly Gertrude, a pianist, Flora Van Huysen’s cook); Ms. Hollander, an amputee, is easily one of the most mobile entities next to Behzad Dabu’s table-hopping young Barnaby. This and more makes “The Matchmaker” the ultimate arena to play with audience expectation. Proceeding with abandon (and with author’s blessing), director Henry Wishcamper delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actors of color in substantial roles, not to mention representation for non-cisgender and differently abled performers.

#4

Show: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Let’s get farcical. Farcical. I wanna hear some bawdy talk.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The verbal acrobatics are wrangled astoundingly well by a cast of hams who are at home fitting their dialog though crummy mouthfuls of cucumber sandwiches. Sean Magill and Jack Dryden make mincemeat of each other as John and Algernon, with Dryden channeling Oscar Wilde magnificently. Enter Megan Delay and Maeghan Looney as Gwendolen and Cecily, and you will wonder how you’ve gotten this far without seeing such skillful comediennes decimate each other and the men who love them. But all of them scatter rightfully for Mary Anne Bowman as Lady Bracknell. The play revels gleefully in the subversion found in the secret lives of the words Oscar Wilde used: ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ could also be used to identify as gay among the 19th century underground. Another layer of humor just for those in the know at the expense of those who were not. That this was Wilde’s final play before he was imprisoned should say a lot about the danger he courted by putting those words in the open.

#5

Show: “Richard III”

Company: The Gift Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This Richard is out for every scrap owed to him. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Director Jessica Thebus and the unnerving Michael Patrick Thornton as Richard stage a minimal, modern-flavored production that invites you to draw current political and social parallels. In an unnerving way, it plays on the impulses of an impatient and well-meaning audience. In moments that go on just a little too long, and are punctuated only by rustling and shifting, an unconscious thought creeps over the faces of able-bodied audience members: Will Richard make it to his feet? Will we be able to catch him if he falls? Hardly necessary. The ever-dignified Richard rarely lets his compatriots see him in need, and he is outfitted for his coronation with the fine technology from The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, keeping him at eye-level. Range of moment and slowness of time play an interesting part of The Gift’s production; when Richard begins, he effectively stops time with every ‘aside’ to the audience, and drives circles around his abled-bodied adversaries. However, when he transitions to the crown and walks upright with mechanical assistance, cracks in his facade begin to form. His plots against his adversaries are less effective, and his command of time fades as he inches closer to a wartime present.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical” (Stage 773 Theatre), “Rolling” (Jackalope Theatre), “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas) and “Wonderful Town” (Goodman Theatre).

*Circulated by director Lavina Jadhwani.