“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: Shockheaded Peter (Black Button Eyes Productions)

(left to right) Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Show: Shockheaded Peter

Company: Black Button Eyes Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Imagine Brecht meets a roving band of insouciant faeries and you have Shockheaded Peter. Directed by Ed Rutherford with music direction by T.J. Anderson, Shockheaded Peter is Black Button Eyes Productions’s delightfully macabre cabaret of cautionary tales about the naughtiest of children and adults. Adapted for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with music by The Tiger Lillies, the play is based on the German Children’s Book The Struwwelpter, and weaves the fates of misbehaving children in between chapters of the tale of Shockheaded Peter’s misbehaving parents.  In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect a musical based on a German children’s book to be.

The audience is led through this cheerfully grim collection by the Master of Ceremonies, a self-important showman who takes joy in the little things, like child pyromaniacs, played with wonderful affectation by Kevin Webb. Webb’s performance, which incorporated just the right amount of physical theater to make the sinister Master of Ceremonies an impish, Puck figure, kept the audience laughing and ready for the next twisted tale.

(front, l to r) Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon

Webb’s playful narcissism and booming voice, would have completely stolen the show, if it weren’t for the ensembles’ skill at clowning. Studio 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre might have burst if they added more of the contortion, stilt work, and puppetry that made the show. Without the work of contortionist Genevieve Lerner and the stilt walking Ellen DeSitter Shockheaded Peter would have been a lesser production. As a whole, the ensemble fully committed to the physical comedy of Shockheaded Peter, with enough vibrancy and life that there was rarely a dull space on stage.

The show was supported by Jeremiah Barr’s puppets which kept the production walking the thin line between bleak and whimsical that is the space where Shockheaded Peter lives. It is worth noting, that Shockheaded Peter is a musical, full of the discordant, minor key tones that bring Kurt Weill to mind or the circus from a horror movie; however, it doesn’t stop them from jaunting from merrily irrelevant tunes to beautiful and haunting numbers and back again, under the musical direction of T.J. Anderson. One of the show’s standout voices is ensemble member Kat Evans, who manages to sound beautiful as both a cat and a storm. Not all of Shockheaded Peter’s soloists are as strong, but their harmonies bring to mind sirens and other auditorily pleasing harbingers of doom.

(front, l to r) Ellen DeSitter and Genevieve Lerner with (back, l to r) Josh Kemper, Kevin Webb, Anthony Whitaker and Gwen Tulin in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago storefront premiere of SHOCKHEADED PETER. Photo by Cole Simon.

Shockheaded Peter isn’t a world changing show—it is fun and full of the sort of darkness that you won’t see on the evening news. It is a sixty-six minute respite from the heavy world shifting events that hit when you turn your phone back on after the show.

Ten Word Summary: Brecht and Weill and faeries attempt a musical for children.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”

Link to Review: “The Thanksgiving Circumcision” (MCL Chicago)

Whenever I write for a media outlet other than this one, I post a link to the resulting review from over there onto this site for your reading pleasure and theatrical decision-making purposes.  I also add a Ten-Word Summary and a Dice Rating for fun and educational purposes, too!

Link to Review: “One Act”, “Primarily Nonsense”, and “Horror of Terror” (Theatre Momentum)

When Newcity Magazine asked me to review three debuts at the same theatre in one night, I did so within one article.  Below there’s a link to that article.  There’s also a Dice Rating and a Ten-Word Summary of the whole evening’s experience.

Link to Review: “belladonna luna sonata” (The Plagiarists)

There are times when I compose a review for someone else, someone called “editor” at another publication.  When I do, I still intend the review to be for you, too.  So, I link to that review here.  And then I give it a Dice Rating and a Ten-Word Summary to make everything better.

Link to Review: “The Terrible” (The New Colony)

Last night I reviewed a play that pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s suicide, and also to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”.  I wrote the review for Newcity Magazine, and the link below is provided so you can read it at its original posting.  I’ve also included a Ten-Word Summary and a Dice Rating.  That way you can see how it measures up to the other reviews here on the site.

Link to Review: “Today We Escape” (Tympanic Theater Company)

I often write reviews for other press outlets.  When I do, I post a link to them here so you can see their ranking according to the dice rating.  I also give each play a 10-Word Summary for fun and educational purposes!

Link to Review: “First Date” (Royal George Theatre)

Whenever I review a show for a media outlet other than this one, I post a link to that review upon its release on the other site.  That way you get to find all my writings of critical importance (get the pun?) right here in one easy to access location.  You can now follow the link below and then also enjoy my brand new Ten Word Summary and Dice Rating, as well!

  • “First Date” (Royal George Theatre)
    • Ten Word Summary: Vignettes about pressures of dating tied together by clunky writing.
    • Dice Rating: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

The Beginning: 10/2 – 10/6 (Chart & brief notes/excuses)

A bunch of shows to see here.  Grab your d20 and rolllllllll!
A bunch of shows to see here. Grab your d20 and rolllllllll!

Howdy!  There’s very little time this week for a preview article.  I’m sorry.  I’ve been away for about a week.  A family medical emergency stole me away to Minnesota.  Once I’d returned to Chicago, my company was in full-on prep mode for this year’s “A Klingon Christmas Carol” which  starts rehearsing on Friday the 3rd.  So… Here’s a very brief note to go along with this week’s chart.  Jackie, Maggie, and I are all seeing one show this week.  Maggie is reviewing a show by Adapt, a number of whose company members I’ve had the pleasure of working with briefly in 2013.  They are a young group made up primarily of former Oklahoma residents who came to the Windy City to do adaptations for the stage.

I return to see a show at Theo Ubique which features the music of Kurt Weill, who is one of my favorite composers.  I’m looking forward to their review.  Jackie is seeing a show called “Owners”, which I know very little about.  There are a number of bigger openings on this week’s chart, but a few of them actually happen on Monday or Tuesday, which means that they are in previews right now.  When I’m not reviewing, previews are the way I prefer to see shows.  It’s not because I prefer to see something in an unfinished state, but rather I’m a theatre professional on a limited budget.  If you, too, are lacking in theatre-going fundage, check out the previews that are on the charts this week.  Remy Bumppo‘s got their first show of the season, “Both Your Houses”, opening on Monday.  So, were I to not be choosing randomly, I’d hit them up on Saturday or Sunday this weekend to see the show a little before the press and the Jeffs committee does.

One last thing… a new group headed by my friend Whitney Jones is putting up their production of a show called “Run Chris Run“.  This show is one that I’ve been keeping my eye on from afar, and I think you should consider taking it in up close if you get a chance.

Okay.  That’s it for now.  I must away to finish getting ready for all things Kling-y.

— Sorry, no randomness this week.  That, in and of itself, is sort of random.  So, there you go!

The Beginning: Sept 4 – Sept 8 (Preview and Chart)

The charts are back, and they have plays on them!  Roll some dice and go see a show!
The charts are back, and they have plays on them! Roll some dice and go see a show!

So, the Summer is done.  And we move on to the heart of the theatrical season.  The summer was rough for me/us here at Theatre By Numbers.  Part of that was due to the summery things that crop up and distract from the world of theatre.  Part of it was due to the way I’d been running this site.  When it comes down to it, this site has primarily been one person spouting forth about theatre and other nonsense.  Occasionally I would have a pinch hitter come on for me when I was in disposed.  But, that’s not the way it’s going to work anymore.

From here on out, there will be three of us reviewing regularly.  Most weeks, all three of us will be reviewing.  Some weeks there will only be two.  The one thing I can promise you is that there will be no weeks like those this summer when we weren’t able to get to anything.  Something will be reviewed every week by Maggie, Jackie, or me.  And, in the odd week wherein all three of us are indisposed, we’ll have a guest reviewer.  That way, we’ll always have someone covering the randomly determined world of theatre.

Also, after this week, charts will always be posted on Tuesdays.  That’ll bring some consistency to the table as well.  Each of us has our own projects to attend to, which will keep things lively as well.  When it comes down to it, we’re all working theatre professionals.  That’s one of the things I like most about this site.  We’re people who do this, too.  You get to read the thoughts of people who are currently working in the medium and whose perspective is informed by that.  A lot of other reviewers cannot say that.

Anyway:  This week there are two of us reviewing.  Jackie is still performing in a show at the Chicago Fringe Festival, which wraps up this weekend.  So Maggie and I are hitting the comfy chairs at the Athenaeum, the Den, and Straw Dog.  There are quite a few exciting possibilities on this week’s chart.  You should give it a try yourself!

Randomness ensues, now:

  • 11:14
  • Quaker Oats debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  So did Aunt Jemima.  It was a good year for breakfast.
  • I’m starting a new workout regimen today.  I’m going to be hurting tomorrow.
  • Why can’t I be you?
  • It’s almost hat season!  I have a small mountain of baseball caps which make up my summer head wear.  I actually don’t know how many hats I have.  I have one for every minor league baseball team within 60 miles of Chicago.  Also a couple for the Saint Paul Saints.  One for my grad school alma mater.  And a few from other places I’ve traveled.  I neglected to buy a cap from Washington DC this past weekend, though.  Oops.  White Sox.  Cubs.  A bunch more. . . Anyway: The real point here is that I wear those mainly to keep the sun from toasting a hole in my bare-skinned head.  The hats I really look forward to wearing are the ones that I have for the colder months.  I have a brown Trilby (read: hipster Fedora-wannabe hat), a black Fedora (the real thing: wide brim, beaver in the felt), and my latest addition to my hat collection, a black derby made by Stetson.  I like hats.  This is something I never knew about myself until a handful of years ago.  Yup.  Can’t wait to doff my derby soon.