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Chicago Scene
by Michael Van Kerckhove
November 2004

Happy Fall, everyone! The apples are crisp, the tank tops are put away, and a new theater season is upon us. The past few weeks have seen plenty of horrors, both of the ghostly and the electoral varieties. Naturally, there’s been plenty of theater in town to calm our nerves, and to frighten us more.

Pride Winds Down
Bailiwick wraps up its annual summer Pride Series with the world premiere of “Meaningless” by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. The play, dubbed as a “late-90s nostalgia play” features Ted, a heartbroken young gay man who ventures through the dot-com/Starbucks/internet dating world of San Francisco in search of himself. “Meaningless” won Bailiwick’s 2nd Annual GLBT College/University Playwriting Contest. Check out Peter’s Web site at peternachtrieb.com

Still Relevant
As the new theater season begins, Half Life Productions and Awaken! Performances Theatre Company present “Half Life” at American Theatre Company. The play, set in 1991 in Chicago, explores the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as a lesbian facing a dishonorable discharge returns from the first Gulf War. Two women, a local reporter and a career military woman, set out to work on her case. Careers and personal lives are tangled up in choices they must make as they seek justice. The story is by local writer, Tracy Baim’s, reports on gay issues over the last 20 years. The stage play was written by Bev Spangler based on the screenplay by Catherine Crouch. As Gulf War and George II rage on, this delicate subject is not likely to go away any time soon. halflifeplay.com

Halloween Madness
Ghosts, demons, and Sweet Transvestites abound this Halloween season. Here are a few trick and treats:

Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off its 10th Anniversary season with Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Weeler’s tongue tripping tale of terror, “Sweeney Todd.” Porchlight has just begun operating under an Equity contract allowing them to draw from an expanded pool of talent. This Jeff Recommended production features Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre veteran Michael Lindner as the murderous barber, Sweeney Todd. The always fabulous Rebecca Finnegan plays his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Through November 28 at Theatre Building. porchlighttheatre.com

That ghastly and hilarious mother-daughter duo, Tiff & Mom, are back in Corn Productions’ “Tales from Mom’s Crypt - Tiff and the Haunted House of Pancakes.” This year’s collection of camp and cackles features “The Killer Wore Khaki” about “the killer next door.” Rosemary’s Baby meets Jerry Springer in “Rosemary’s Baby Daddy.” The Stepford Wives gets a Tiff & Mom treatment with “The Berwyn Wives.” Scary! And for the kids, the Corn folks present “Don’t Turn Out the Lights!” about the mysterious happenings on Halloween at Berwyn Middle School. Look out! cornservatory.org

Out in the ’burbs at Morain Valley Community College, my friend, Chris, directs “The Rocky Horror Show,” the stage musical that spun into cult film legend. Unfortunately I am not able to attend, but in an email from Chris, he described the Halloween night performance as such: “300 people, and they threw an ungodly amount of toilet paper, hot dogs, and playing cards” at the cast. Awesome! Visit Chris’ Web site at chrisgarciapeak.com

At the Playground Theatre on Halsted, Jenn Ellison directs a late night production of “Hellhouse.” The show is a cheeky send up on the “Hellhouses” that Christian evangelicals produce. These are Halloween horror houses for children, replacing ghosts and goblins with “real” demons, such as gay people dying of AIDS, a stem cell addict who munches on a pregnant woman’s abdomen to get to her fetus, and other horrors of high “moral values.”

Election Fever
Between Saturday Night Live and other late night shows, “W” gets plenty of television lampooning. Here are some of the Chicago theatrical stage treatments our Prez has gotten this election season.

Theater Wit presents the world premiere of “W!,” a musical satire of you-know-who written by Tom Mula and Steve Rashid and directed by Steve Scott. Mula, as the title role, confronts supporters and dissenters alike at a Republican fundraiser through musical numbers such as “A Texas Kind of Prez,” “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” and “Mayberry Machiaveli” (about Karl Rove). Scott C. Morgan, in his Windy City Times review writes, “This will be therapeutic for some to laugh out their anger, but it will more likely stoke the anger of ‘the choir’ of Kerry supporters in attendance.” theaterwit.org

The Clowny Collective (Chicago playwrights Lisa Dillman, Rebecca Gilman, Mark Guarino, and Brett Neveu) present “The Bushy Plays,” four one-act comedies. They are “Lick the Sucker,” “Get Out the Vote,” “Calibrated,” and “W.” respectively. Directed by Ann Filmer at The Hideout in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood.

Theater Oobleck presents “The Passion of the Bush,” an epic political satire borrowing from The Odyssey, Spartacus, passion plays, and Mel Gibson. Guy Massey plays Prince Dubius as he embarks on his journey from “dissolute playboy” to a seat in the “comfy sofa of power.” Along the way he meets Athena, Cokie Roberts, Rushius Limbix, Circe, Mars, a “mysterious potentate” named Ali Burton, and Mel himself, among others. theateroobleck.com

Our First Lady is not spared either in not one, but two productions of Jane Martin’s “Laura’s Bush.” The satire explores the idea that Mrs. Bush is signaling Morse Code for “help me” when she appears on television, and that there are those out there who would indeed come to her rescue. Curious Theatre Branch performs at Frankie J’s MethaDome Theater. Full Voice Productions performs at the Spareroom. curioustheatrebranch.com - fullvoiceproductions.org - laurasbush.com

Camp Factor
This fall, Live Bait Theater has been enjoying the success of its Jeff Recommended original musical, “Camp Nimrod for Girls,” written by Martha Watterson, with music by Robert Steel and lyrics by Mary Scruggs. Jay Paul Skelton directs. The show features Jan, the new girl at Camp Nimrod, who struggles to fit in with her cabin mates, the Catbirds. She is pressured into a romance with Randy, the leader of the boys’ camp across the lake. But then she meets Butterscotch, her horse for the summer, and they embark on their own secret and forbidden romance. Of course, the other horses are none too happy about this either. The well rounded story also has a budding gay youth who has more eyes for Randy than any of the Catbirds. Hedy Weiss, in her Chicago Sun Times review, described it as “National Velvet meets Equus.” A show for anyone who has ever felt out of place. And isn’t that all of us? livebaittheater.org

Classic Revivals
Two classic American plays of note enjoy revivals on Chicago stages this fall: Court Theatre snatches the rights to Edward Albee’s booze-laden Cold War era drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Charles Newell directs this straight-on, true-to-period production featuring Chicago powerhouse performer Barbara E. Robertson as Martha, Kevin Gudahl as George, Lance Stuart Baker as Nick, and Whitney Sneed as the young and delicate Honey. Sneed’s performance, as described by Chris Jones in his Chicago Tribune review, is “like an underage-drinking Vassar freshman at a wake for someone she never met.” courttheatre.org

Lawrence Bommer opens his Chicago Tribune review of Raven Theatre’s East Stage production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” by saying, “Marlon Brando may be gone but that doesn’t mean Stanley should stop shouting at Stella.” Mike Vieau and Liz Fletcher star as the iconic brute and damsel in distress pair of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois in a production where the “desire” of the title is explored seriously and richly. Director Michael Menendian is quoted as saying, “The satisfying of urges, emotional and physical, is at the heart of the play.” Extended through January 29, 2005.

On the West Stage, Raven presents a night of Williams’ one-acts that includes “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches,” “Portrait of a Madonna,” and “Talk to Me Like the Rain,” and “Let Me Listen.” raventheatre.com

Classic Playwright
The Goodman Theatre presented the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s new play “Finishing the Picture.” Through a thin shadow of fictionalization, the play chronicles the back story of the making of “The Misfits,” the film Miller wrote for then wife, Marilyn Monroe. Stacey Keach leads an all star cast — that includes Matthew Modine, Linda Lavin, Scott Glenn, Francis Fisher, and Stephen Lang — as they decide the fate of the film whose leading lady, Kitty (played by Heather Prete), lies drugged out and near comatose in the other room. Not as meaty or emotional as Miller classics like “Death of a Salesman” or “The Crucible,” the new play is a smaller, more personal piece that allows him to free a few demons. The ensemble of characters have so many stories we wished could have been given more time (or their own plays!) An okay Miller play is still a wonderful evening of theater. I can only hope that I too have a world premiere when I’m 89 years old. goodmantheatre.org

The Show Must Go On
This fall, Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play, “The Dresser.” Harwood won an Oscar for “The Pianist.” John Mahoney stars as Sir, the eccentric theater company leader who tours a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to boost the British morale during the Blitz. Tracey Letts plays Norman, Sir’s valet and confidant, who would do anything to stop Sir’s own slip into madness. Directed by ensemble member Amy Morton, the show also features Mary Beth Fisher, Peggy Roeder, Jeff Still, Lindsey Page Morton, and Mike Nussbaum. steppenwolf.org

In the Confessional
In October, I participated in the NewTown Writers’ fall event, “Dear Diary: Readings From Queer Journals,” in the Bailiwick Loft space. I dusted off a few entries and a poem from college and also shared a piece from earlier this year. Others on hand were Cin Salach, Timothy Rey, Mike Rogers, and Robert Klein Engler. Dancer Tommy Rapley lent his talents to Robert’s piece. Domenick Danza directed. newtownwriters.org

Speaking of Which
The Lakeshore Theatre is home to the Jeff Recommended “Diva Diaries,” a musical starring Alexandra Billings, Honey West, and Berwick Hanes as three veteran drag queens preparing for their final show at Pandora’s Box, their home for 30 years. Jay L. Johnson, Ty Perry, and Paul Tomak play younger versions of the divas as their story unfolds through hit songs of 70s through today. divadiariesthemusical.com

New in Town
A new Chicago theatre company, Black Dove Theatre, presents Diana Son’s 1998 drama, “Stop Kiss,” at Breadline Theatre’s Lab space. The play features Callie and Sara (Mel Hard and Kelly Belmont), two straight women who develop a friendship that almost crosses over into a physical arena. When they are about to have a first kiss, they are attacked in a hate crime, and one is physically damaged. Female relationships and sexual identity are explored.

Visions, Voices, and Violas
Visions & Voices Theatre Company presents “Arrangement for Two Violas,” a new play by Susan Lieberman. The play is set in small town Wisconsin in 1938. It features a county doctor, Peter Chase (John Sanders), who meets a Milwaukee medical specialist, Henry Meegan (Stephen Rader), though friends Karl and Nan (Gene Cordon and Marssie Mencotti.) The two doctors discover their mutual passion of classical music and talent on the viola, and develop a secret, passionate affair. Chicago Reader reviewer Christopher Piatt connects the play’s time and place to his own Kansas upbringing where Fred Phelps’ folks protested even the most innocuous of musicals. The piece has elements of country mouse/city mouse and red state/blue state mentality that make its opening four days after 11 states voted on gay marriage bans all the more meaningful. Directed by Ann Filmer at Chicago Dramatists. Through December 19. visionsandvoices.org

Whew! So much going on. I know I’m exhausted. Cheers to a peaceful holiday season. See you in the New Year


“Chicago Scene” columnist and playwright, Michael Van Kerckhove, may be contacted at mavankerckhove@gmail.com

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