Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ernani Theatre Review: Masterful Execution of a Verdi Unknown

The Lyric Opera presents

At the Civic Opera House
By Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Based on Victor Hugo’s tragedy Hernani
Conducted by Renato Palumbo
Stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi
Thru November 23rd

Three men fight over the love of Elvira. (Luckily sung in Italian, it sounds more like Elvera so “My heart is on fire for Elvira…” momentarily leaves my head). The Lyric Opera presents Ernani, an opera written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1844. The Italian opera with projected English subtitles tells the tale of Elvira’s suitors: Ernani, Don Carlo-King of Spain and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. The outlaw, Ernani storms Silva’s castle to abduct Elvira. He runs into the King and an Elvira abduction already in progress. Silva enters furious that his fiancé is being double abducted in his own home. In love with Ernani, Elvira escapes her marriage to Silva by becoming a hostage of the King’s. Because Silva keeps him from being arrested, Ernani pledges his life to him. In Ernani terms, this promise means Silva gets to decide when Ernani will die. So, after the King pardons everyone and orders Elvira to marry Ernani, who shows up as the wedding crasher? Silva appears and asks Ernani, “poison or dagger?” Ernani chooses a dagger, stabs himself and dies in Elvira’s arms.

Check out the rest of the review at The Chicago Theater Blog

Making her debut at the Lyric Opera, Jen describes her experience as, “an aesthetic wonder and a musical treat in a space where the people are as fun to look at as the venue.”

The Mercy Seat Theatre Review: 9/12 Attacks On The Homefront

Profiles Theatre presents

The Mercy Seat
Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by Joe Jahraus

9/11 is an unforgettable day. The next day, not so much! Although no one ever asks “where were you on 9/12?” that is the chosen setting for Profile Theatre’s production of The Mercy Seat. Among the ruins of the 2001 terrorists’ attacks, a couple contemplates their survival. Ben and Abby have been having an affair for three years. Ben is married with two kids. Abby is his boss. Ben wants to utilize the tragedy’s chaos for him and Abby to run away together to the Bahamas. Choosing not to answer his continuously ringing cell phone, Ben is allowing his family to assume he is dead. He is sparing his family the pain of his betrayal and permitting them to grieve a hero. This infuriates Abby. The 9/12 attacks in a New York City loft are ninety minutes of implosions.

Playwright Neil LaBute dumps you in the middle of the wreckage of Abby and Ben’s lives to sift through the remnants for salvageables. Darrell Cox (Ben) and Cheryl Graeff (Abby) are uncomfortably natural in their portrayal of a bickering couple. Their quarreling is petty at times picking on each other’s choice of words like “duly noted” and “okay.” The nit-picking rages into squirming in your seat, mean spirited intimate with, “for three years, you’ve never looked me in the eyes when we’ve screwed.” Do they love each other enough to leave their lives and run away together? Playwright Neil LaBute fully develops two very human characters, exposes their weaknesses and flaws, places them at a fragile crossroads and forces them to decide their fate. Cox and Graeff are Ben and Abby! Love each other? Sometimes it doesn’t even seem they like each other! The close proximity of the audience to stage is the fly on the wall experience of the not so pretty but completely real moments in a relationship. Feeling like I’m eavesdropping, more than once “I shouldn’t be watching this” crosses my mind. But just like re-watching the plane hit the second tower, I continue to gaze on the spectacle hoping for a positive outcome.

Besides masterfully written dialogue and acting that is so good it doesn’t seem like acting, I loved The Mercy Seat's little details to place you back in 9/11 history. Abby arrives at her apartment masked and covered in dust. The dust is so authentic in the theatre that Cox has a coughing fit and my contacts dry out. The television on the set is showing CNN coverage of the two towers collapsing. It’s a strong reminder that for days Americans were glued to televisions watching the footage over and over in disbelief. The unprecedented tragic events on 9/11 sent the world into a bewildered tailspin. To be in the epicenter of the craziness, New Yorkers were in the mercy seat. How many of them took the opportunity to walk away from their so-so lives to start an okay life somewhere else? As Ben says to Abby, “being just okay is good enough.”

The survivor to my left, Shawn says, “the acting is sublime!”


Pre-show, I dine with Bill and Steve at Fornello’s (1011 W. Irving Park). Escaping yet another rainy, gloomy Chicago evening, Fornello’s is a cozy oasis that greets you with the homey smells of an open fire and Italian cooking. Nick, doing double duty as bartender and server, enthusiastically recommends a hearty red wine, asparagus salad, pumpkin ravioli and tilapia. We put ourselves at Nick’s mercy and order up all his recommendations to split. The summer salad, rich pasta and sautéed fish are a bit of a mismatch. But much like my dinner companions, individually served it’s a satisfying dish. Together, it becomes a memorable explosion of flavors that will not be denied. Deciding against the dark content of The Mercy Seat, the guys drop me at the theatre door to join Shawn. Originally, I thought this play was called “Mercy Date” now I realize it was just foreshadowing of my evening’s role.

Less than a block away from Profiles Theatre is The Bar on Buena (910 W. Buena). Post show, we head over. From the outside, it looks closed. Opening the door, it’s like a neighborhood block party. Even with the crowd, Shawn and I stalk and secure two comfortable armed chairs. It’s a little noisy but that adds to the festive atmosphere. I loved the ambiance of this place. The service was just okay, but being just okay is good enough. Not really but it’s not so tragic that 10/29 will become an unforgettable day

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

These Shining Lives Theatre Review: Find Time To See It!

These Shining Lives
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
at the Raven Theatre
October 25, 2009

Catherine is elated to be starting a new job painting 100+ watches a day at 8 cents a watch. Time is her friend? Or is it? Rivendell Theatre Ensemble remounts its critically acclaimed and Jeff Award nominated These Shining Lives. Directed by Rachel Walshe,These Shining Lives is the true story of four of the many women who work at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois in the 1920’s. Unaware of the risk, these workers paint the glow-in-the-dark faces on watches utilizing radium. Women are voting, smoking in public and joining the workforce. Having a well-paying job in a challenging economy brings independence and validation. Later, suspecting that something isn’t quite right, the women struggle to not lose the freedom, security and camaraderie of employment. These Shining Lives uses a tragedy in history to illustrate the strong bonds of marriage and friendship.

Check out the rest of the review at The Chicago Theater Blog

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Man of La Mancha Theatre Review: The Man is a Woman!

Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents

Man of La Mancha
At No Exit Café
Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by David Heimann
Thru November 22, 2009

With a plunger for a sword and a bowl for a helmet, Cervantes proclaims he is the knight, Don Quixote. Sounds crazy? Man of La Mancha is set in a mental institution. The newest inmate at the asylum, Cervantes must convince a jury of his peers that he is not crazy. Man of La Mancha is a play within a play. Don Quixote tells his tales of slaying dragons (windmills), storming castles (the local inn) and rescuing a lady in distress (the local whore) to prove his identity. From the man (Dale Wasserman), who penned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the man (and No Exit Café owner Michael James), whose father first produced the 1965 Broadway version, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents the musical starring a woman as the Man of La Mancha.

Check out the rest at Chicago Theater Blog

Heroes Theatre Review: All Star Salute


Presented by Remy Bumppo
At the Greenhouse Theatre Center
Written by Gerald Sibleyras
Translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by James Bohnen
Thru November 29th

A head of shrapnel, gimp leg and derangement have never been funnier. Remy Bumppo’s Heroes bring three World War I vets together for convalescent camaraderie. Set in an old soldier home, our heroes amuse each other with tales of nun slapping, terrace invasion defense strategies and escape plans with a 200 pound dog statue in tow. It’s not your grandpa’s war show about reliving the glory days of WW I. Instead, Heroes is about three outcasts (four if you count the dog) banning together in united tolerance for the final battle, old age.

Check out the rest at Chicago Theatre Blog

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mistakes Were Made Theatre Review: Michael Shannon's Performance is Exhausting!

A Red Orchid Theatre presents
By Craig Wright
Directed by Dexter Bullard
October 22, 2009

Things have to happen for something to occur” is a line from the script that sums up perfectly Mistakes Were Made. Felix Artifex (played by Michael Shannon) is the middleman juggling the high maintenance needs of an actor, playwright, agent and others in an effort to produce a fictitious play entitled “Mistakes Were Made.” Throughout his multi-tasking job, he is also fretting about his non-responsive ex. The twist, in this A Red Orchid Theatre production, is all the interaction is done over the telephone. The audience is eavesdropping on a one-sided conversation to determine what is happening.

With only the aid of a primarily offstage receptionist and a rubber fish, Michael Shannon is a one man show. Shannon does a phenomenal job! For an hour and forty-five minutes (no intermission), he rants on. Sprint transitioning from call to call, Shannon transforms his double speak to each caller’s agenda. At the end of the show, Shannon looks exhausted and is dripping in sweat. I loved him in Revolutionary Road which prompted me to buy tickets to Mistakes Were Made. No one plays psychotic on film or on stage better than Michael Shannon.

Mistakes Were Made!? The theatre is kept at an Artic chill. I’m not sure if it is for Shannon’s high energy performance or to keep the audience awake. Things have to happen for something to occur. Craig Wright’s script is innovative and witty. Unfortunately without some interactive action on stage, the audience can’t sustain the concentration level for almost two hours to understand the full story from the one-sided delivery. There are heads a noddin’ throughout the audience. I’m embarrassed to admit it but I might have zoned out once… or four times. The other speed bump is the theatre configuration. In the lobby, I overhear a box office person say there were only ten seats left and that includes “the ones that are partially obstructed.” Come on now! It’s a mistake to have any seat partially obstructed. I can’t decide if the set design by Tom Burch (which is a perfect replication of a producer’s office) is at fault or the theatre space is just clunky.

My gal pal sidekick, Jen described the show as intense (for actor and audience), imaginative and involved.

Pre-preshow, I wander into Eivissa (1531 N. Wells Street) right next door to the theatre. As luck would have it, they are hosting a grand opening special of sangria and tapas for $10 between 6pm – 8pm. My mistake is I’ve been mustering a sushi craving all day in relation to my pending dinner plans. Steph, the very friendly bartender, suggests a nice and inexpensive roja. My quiet bar refuge from the cold, rainy night is interrupted as the masses appear for tonight’s festivities. One woman orders two Sangrias for herself and the empty bar stool between us. She explains to me it’s her “pretend boyfriend.” (Gal, I’ve gone out with him, he’s no prize!) Before I leave, Steph slips me a card with 10% off of my next visit. She wants me to try the food. Things have to happen for something to occur. Oh, I’ll be back. I love a discount or coupon.

Speaking of coupons, I meet up with Jen at Kamahachi (1400 N. Wells). It wasn’t a mistake to turn down the free tapas because the sushi was delicious and bountiful. I started with a Japanese pumpkin soup. Hot, creamy and rich, the soup was a perfect starter. We split three rolls including the turtle roll. Having purchased a $50 gift certificate for $20 through Groupon, our 3 rolls, 2 soups and 1 bottle of wine meal was $14.50 each. (Of course, we tipped on the full amount because we aren’t savages.) Things have to happen for something to occur. I haven’t been to Kamahachi in awhile but I’ll be back. Jen’s got three more groupons!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Votes for Women! Theatre Review: We've Come A Long Way Baby!

ShawChicago presents:

Votes for Women!
by Elizabeth Robins
directed by Robert Scogin
thru November 9, 2009

Inadequate health care coverage, conservatives versus liberals, rumors of a politician’s past sexual indiscretion? No, Votes for Women! isn’t the story of Hillary Clinton’s rise to power. In fact, actress and playwright Elizabeth Robins wrote the work over a hundred years ago. Set in England in 1907, Votes for Women is about a naïve heiress introduced to the Suffragettes’ movement by the former lover of her political fiancé. ShawChicago’s production is a 100-year anniversary replication of Votes for Women! being introduced to Chicago.

My sister suffragette J.J. describes the show as “educational but long.”

For the rest of the review, click on Chicago Theater Blog

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Carpenter's Halloween Theatre Review: A Real Treat!

Carpenter’s Halloween
The Scooty & Jojo Show
At Mary’s Attic
Chicago, Illinois
October 17, 2009

Light their way when the darkness surrounds them… The beginning narration of a story about a beast or a line from a 1970’s pop song? Carpenter’s Halloween re-imagines John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween movie as a musical. The Scooty & Jojo Show use the lyrics of Karen and Richard Carpenter to tell the tale of Michael Myer’s psycho ward escape and killing spree homecoming. The results… the top of the world looking down on creation! Carpenter’s Halloween is a hilarious slasher reproduction.

Check out the rest at Chicago Theatre Blog

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fedra Theatre Review: Not Feeling The Love!


Lookingglass Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
October 14, 2009

She loves him but he loves somebody else. She just can’t win! Oh My Afrodite, love stinks! Based on the Greek mythology Phredra, Fedra is set in future Haiti. The queen, Fedra is in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. After her husband, Thesus, is assumed killed in a plane crash, Fedra hits on Hippo. Hippo rejects the pass because Fedra’s timing is horrific plus he loves political prisoner Aricia. When Theseus returns from the dead, Fedra tells him Hippo raped her. Curses! It’s a Greek tragedy!

OMA! I wanted to love Fedra, but Afrodite was against me and I only liked it. Starring and written by J. Nicole Brooks (Fedra), the acting was a little over the top and the writing was little under the bottom. The combination made for some overly dramatic clichés. Using what I like to call an “opera voice” to wail emotion is too gimmicky. So, is a twitchy eye to symbolize someone's love. “Your eye is twitching therefore you must love Aricia!” (,said in an opera voice.) Come on! My eye twitching means I’ve had too much coffee not that I’m in love with the guy at Starbucks. Brooks’ best Fedra moments were the Afrodite (Tamberla Perry) interactions, particularly the scene in which Brooks is paralyzed and holding herself up with one arm. (Nice guns, Fedra!) Was it a curse from the gods? I really did love Perry as the sassy diety, Afrodite. The spell encompassed Michael Salinas (Theramenes) too. I can’t help but compare Salinas’ recent stint in Hollowlands to his current understated but commanding performance. OMA, the boy’s got range!

Afrodite also allowed me to love the costumes and set. Alison Siple displayed a range of costumes with a modern twist. From the god to the queen to the political prisoner, I loved seeing that future fashion is flowy fun paired with high tops. Water was an interesting element to the set design by Meghan Raham. Dripping from the ceiling and a pool on stage, water was a prop used by the actors to summon the gods and for redemption. Kudos to the actors for getting in the pool fully clothed every show. OMA! Wet shoes stink!

Not feeling the love, Bill described it as dramatic, mediocre acting, and amateurish.

In the spirit of the economic times, Bill scrounged up Corner Bakery gift cards to treat for a pre-show dinner. On a cold, dark, rainy Chicago night, the Corner Bakery (676 N. St. Clair) was a home baked refuge. Cookies everywhere! It was love at first sight with a snickerdoodle. And because Bill treats me like a queen, he told me I could get a cookie with my dinner. Everything was going perfectly as we ordered a bounty of food that totaled $19.76. And then… curses! The cashier denied the gift cards as invalid since the merger. Always the diplomat, Bill pointed out the gift cards were still featured on the website. The manager came over to deny us as well. Greek tragedy! Always willing to be the crazy queen, I canceled our order and stormed off. OMA! Where’s the love, Corner Bakery?

Two blocks away within the Omni Hotel, we found redemption at the 676 Lounge (676 N. Michigan). Even though we basically repeated our order of a wrap and salad to split, 676 gave us something that Corner Bakery couldn’t….no not love, wine. 676 only kinda liked us but that could be forgiven with a nice shiraz. The sole bartender was serving a bustling after work crowd with the “help” or more like “hindrance” of a slow moving manager. The arugula and apple salad combined perfectly with the barbecue chicken wrap. Although the bill was over four times what Corner Bakery’s would have been, we left 676 cookieless but with dignity intact.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kill The Old Torture Their Young Theatre Review: What Happened?

Kill The Old Torture Their Young

Steep Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
October 9, 2009

A documentary filmmaker returns to his hometown to shoot a movie. I was intrigued by the promising premise for Kill The Old Torture Their Young. Having fallen smitten with Steep Theatre during its production of Hollowlands, I had high expectations for our second date, Kill The Old Torture Their Young. I grew up in a town brimming with oddities and quirky characters. Every time I go home for a holiday, I feel like I’m a documentary filmmaker trying to see my pa-dunky youth through my big city lens. Come on! Anybody returning to a childhood home tries to reconstruct the subplots of their existence to determine what would have been if they had connected the dots differently. The subject matter is relatable, intriguing and a platform for hilarity. So, Torture, what happened?

"I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried.’ I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, ‘Hey, man, I saw your
play... what happened?’" – Jeff in the movie Tootsie

What happened? Well, you can pick the hottest restaurant in town but if the food and service are lacking, it’s sure to kill the second date. Playwright David Harrower grew up in Edinburgh so maybe his disjointed script doesn’t translate well into English. Director Kathryn Walsh (no relation) staged the play in a long linear strip with two audience groupings facing each other. An initially interesting choice which proves unnecessary and distracting as characters deliver complete scenes with their back to half of the theatre. Throughout a torturous second date, you desperately look for some reason to even consider a third. Like fresh breath, good kisser, eats with his mouth closed, Torture produces some pockets of hope. Jim Poole (Steven) and Julia Siple (Heather) as characters, they struggle with mediocre lives and as actors, they struggle with mediocre material. Dereck Garner (Rock Star) and James Allen (Birdwatcher) entertain in their separate roles and as play crashers. Play crashers? You know characters that aren’t a part of the plot but awkwardly show up anyway to try to liven it up.

I’m not breaking up with Steep Theatre over Kill The Old Torture Their Young. In any progressive relationship, you need the opportunity to experiment and try new things. But Steep, believe me when I say, “Return to Love Canal is not my idea of the tunnel of love.”

My Steep Theatre matchmaker, Tom described the show as fragmented, modern, and pointless.

I was to meet Tom for dinner at Argyle and Sheridan. I remembered from the e-mail the restaurant started with Pho X---. Arriving on Argyle, I realized there were two choices across the street from each other: Pho Xe Lua and Pho Xua. A quick call to Tom for clarification. Knowing my pronunciation and directional barriers, Tom told me to go to the one with orange chairs. Pho Xua (1020 W. Argyle) had an extensive menu. We started with a popular appetizer that consisted of seasoned beef wrapped in betel (I was assured not bugs) leaves. I ordered a noodle dish with pork and Tom got the ginger marinated lamb. Huge portions, BYOB and tasty!

Post show, we crossed the street to try out Ollie’s Lounge (1064 W. Berwyn). We scored the perfect seats for people watching. The house specialty, pineapple juice and rum, seemed a quirky choice for the urban jamming bar. The bouncer was an enthusiastic woman who carded us and greeted everybody else with a hug. The barback was a kind, grandma type who couldn’t recommend a drink because she stopped drinking years ago. A plethora of interesting characters: guy playing pool with a feather in his hat, stocking capped hipster unable to blend in, voluptuous woman spilling drinks and out of her blouse. Ollie’s was entertaining! As we were leaving, the bouncer invited us back on the last Saturday in November for her birthday pajama party. David Harrower, mark your calendar for a research expedition!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Million Dollar Quartet Theatre Review: Rocks Out!

Million Dollar Quartet

Apollo Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
September 30, 2009

So did you hear the one about Elvis walking into a music studio to jam with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis? It really happened and the story has been re-imagined in Million Dollar Quartet. Yes, it was a foursome on that December 1956 afternoon. Carl Perkins was there too. (No offense to his rockabilly kin but I had to google Carl later.) The show illustrates how Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips was the catalyst in launching new musical careers from his tiny Memphis studio.

The music is the star of the show. Apollo Theatre has fantastic acoustics. So much so, Tom and I discussed whether or not it was pre-recorded and lip synced. The cast delivers high energy performances and channels the legends with spooky accuracy. Levi Kreis (Jerry Lee Lewis) is over the top flamboyant with acrobatic piano stunts. Eddie Clendening (Elvis) croons, scowls and shakes his leg with King-like precision. Sean Sullivan (Johnny Cash) belts out a soulful song rendition then mumbles his speaking parts much like the humble man in black. Rob Lyons (Carl Perkins) plays a mean guitar just like… I just don’t know if it was an accurate depiction of Carl. (I thought Carl Perkins narrated Wild Kingdom but that was Marlon.) A fifth character Dyanne – Elvis’ girlfriend (Kelly Lamont) brings harmony and a Marilyn Monroe/Peggy Lee vampness to level out the testosterone playground.

I really enjoyed the music and learning about the early roots of these musicians. Million Dollar Quartet has a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission. This wouldn’t usually bother me especially when experiencing a fast paced performance. It did affect the bus crowd from the suburbs who seemed to struggle throughout the performance to find an exit. It was distracting as if it was part of the show in a bizarre synchronization number. One person would return prompting another to rise and begin a lap around a section of seats before stumbling on a path out. I have a solution for the weak bladdered.  Million Dollar Quartet could shave off some time with digital prompters flashing “Hold Your Applause.” There are 21 musical numbers in the show. Each song is interrupted at least once for narration, sometimes 2-3 times. The audience does not need to clap after every break in the movement. Of course, this is my ongoing pet peeve. I want to clap at the end of the show only or if there is a magnificent aria. But not at the conclusion of every song and definitely not 1-3 times for the same song. I’m not so concerned that someone not step on my blue suede shoes (a little nod out to my boy Carl). I just don’t want chapped hands.

Feeling the beat, Tom described the show as amplified, country-fried, and personified.


Pre-show, we went to Grand Central (950 W. Wrightwood). Tom told me the locale origins were of a punk and grungy dance club. Those remains have disappeared. Grand Central is a dressed up sports bar adorned with multiple stain glass light fixtures and flat screen televisions. The best part was the evening specials: $3 drafts, $3 Sangria and $3 quesadilla. A Guinness and the pulled pork quesadilla, my dinner was $6! O.K., it was $9 because I had a second Guinness but still WAHOO!!! Enjoy this economy stimulus dinner but tip on the original amount.

Post show, we did a glance over at Grand Central which had gone from a quiet pre-theatre quartet to a noisy concert crowd. $3 drafts, undoubtedly! We opted to call it a school night and head home so I could google Carl Perkins. (Carl Perkins later played in Johnny Cash’s band for ten years and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Good for you, Carl!)