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Chicago Scene
by Michael Van Kerckhove
May 2005

Happy Spring! Finally, the season’s flowers are in bloom in neighborhood gardens and Michigan Avenue beds alike. Here is a selection of shows to help get us out of winter’s hibernation.

Out & About at Steppenwolf
Just in time for opening day at both Wrigley Field and Comisky Park (excuse me, US Cellular Field), About Face Theatre teams up with Steppenwolf for the Chicago premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award winner, “Take Me Out” (or “that gay baseball play.”) This “tragicomic examination of issues of tolerance, friendship, and self awareness” (Rick Reed, Windy City Times) features Derrick Nelson as New York Empires star Darren Lemming who holds a press conference to announce to the world that he is gay, and follows his story as reactions and consequences unfold. Add layers of racism on behalf of the team’s Asian and Latin players, as well as the now infamous full nude shower scenes which literally physicalize the play’s emotional themes, and we have a well-balanced work on our hands.

This well received production is directed by About Face artistic director Eric Rosen. It also features AFT co-founder Kyle Hall (whose well toned physique is featured in most publicity photos) as the play’s narrator, Kippy. Like Denis O’Hare in the original production (who Ernie and I saw in the show’s pre-Broadway run at the Public), Chicago’s Tom Aulino’s accountant-turned-baseball-fan steals the show. When he says towards play’s end, “Life is so … so tiny, so daily. This … you take me out of it” we can feel what stirs our own passions through this sort of gay Everyman. Extended through May 21, 2005.
aboutfacetheatre.com

Revival Time
This spring, new and established companies alike are reviving a number of musical treats (one even reviving from its own history.) Here’s a brief run down:

Porchlight Music Theatre celebrates the work of composer-playwright, William Finn, in this spring’s “Finn Fest.” The first half presents, in rep, “In Trousers” and the Tony Award winning “Falsettos.” Here, we follow the story of Marvin who is married to Trina and has a young son (Jason) about to celebrate his bar mitzvah. In the former, Marvin works through his gay leanings in waking dreams. The latter quite literally extends the family as we meet Marvin’s lover, Whizzer, Trina’s psychiatrist, Mendel, and the lesbian couple next door. Set in 1979-80, the wit of numbers like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and “The Baseball Game” is balanced with “Something Bad is Happening,” which expresses their fears as Whizzer is hospitalized with a strange new disease.

The second half of the Fest presents, in rep, “A New Brain” (a revival of Porchlight’s 2002 production), and the Chicago premiere of “Elegies: A Song Cycle.” In the former, Stephen Rader revives the role of Gordon, a man diagnosed with a brain tumor who fears that all the songs he has yet to write would be locked away inside his brain if he died, or his surgery would render him without motor skills. The show is an upbeat and life-affirming reminder: Savor it all before it’s taken away from us (possibly quite suddenly!) The latter is a series of songs celebrating the lives of those dear to Mister Finn, now gone. As the Theatre Building (the Fest’s venue) press release assures us, “far from being a mournful series of songs, however, “Elegies,” just as the title suggests, celebrates the lives of each of these people, and the effect they had on the author’s own life.”

The Fest also includes panel discussions, receptions with Mister Finn, as well as a special cabaret event entitled “aFINNity” featuring powerhouse Chicago musical theatre talent to benefit the Center on Halsted.
porchlighttheatre.com

After an unsuccessful commercial production a few years back, John Cameron Mitchell and Steven Trask’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” returns to Chicago in a late night, stripped down, rock concert presentation by Elemental Theatre Company (start time 11:40 as to not blast away the Finn Fest.) This cross “between a one-woman show, a rock gig, and Plato’s Symposium” (Inside Publication’s Reina Hardy) tells the story of Hedwig (Keith Stoneking’s), a lovesick East German boy whose failed sex change operation has sent him into a rock infused whirl of despair where learning to love himself is the only way out. As Windy City Times’ Mary Shen Barnidge writes, “It wasn’t The Rocky Horror Show yet-nobody threw gummy bears or eye-liner brushes-but this non-equity version of John Cameron Mitchell’s sturdy cabaret musical has the moxie to generate its own little cult following.”

New kids in town, The Tonkawa Theatre Tribe, have crashed the Chicago theatre party and made their presence known. The group, which “is committed to bringing musical theater productions that break the boundaries of race, culture, sexuality and religion” brings back the Galt MacDermot-Gerome Ragni-James Rado ’60’s rock musical Hair to Chicago stages. The Tribe and the production sprang forth from a Columbia College presentation in 2002. The Tribe was established as a company in January 2004 and have now made their professional debut within the city limits. Most of the cast from the ’02 production are still involved. They had a successful run at Strawdog and then transferred to Live Bait. Now, they are enjoying a successful open run at the larger Lake Shore Theatre. As Chicagocritic.com’s Tom Williams says, “Hair is, indeed no longer a ’60’s show-it has been adopted by the younger energetic cast and it is now a 21st Century musical.”

tonkawatheatretribe.com Two Weddings and a Circus
Bailiwick Art Center plays host to two productions of note this spring. Bailiwick Rep kicks off its 2005 Pride Series with the world premiere of Jay Paul Deratany’s “Two Grooms and a Mohel,” a “zany, politically incorrect comedy designed to provoke more than just one’s sense of humor.” This story of two friends — one straight and one gay — who ponder the benefits of marriage features puppet work by Kate Stranski. Through May 23, 2005.
bailiwick.org

Newtown Writers presents Robert Klein Engler’s Caytano’s Circus in an off night run in the Bailiwick Studio. The play features Michael Rashid as Richard Harberg, a college professor who, upon losing his job, heads down to New Orleans to write his book. He answers an ad placed by Bernard Aguilar (Miguel Mendez), a wealthy man in Algiers with a questionable occupation. Mr. Aguilar needs someone to teach Spanish to his estranged son, Phillipe (Erez Shek). Voodoo, the ghost of a singer, the sounds and sweat of New Orleans, and a little forbidden desire add to Engler’s world. The play was first presented in a staged reading last year. The author spent time in New Orleans this past Mardi Gras season to execute revisions. The result is a tighter story with solid scenes aided by a wonderful cast. Congrats to all involved. Next up for NTW: Working Stiffs 4 — in which I will be presenting a new piece. June 13 and 15, 2005.
newtownwriters.org

Wicked in Chicago
The national tour of the Tony Award winning Oz-inspired “Wicked” is here for a sold out limited run this spring. The tour stars Stephanie Block (who was involved in early workshops of the show) as Elphaba, Kendra Kassbaum as Glinda, and Carol Kane as Madame Morrible. A special shout out to my WMU Theatre classmate, ensemble member Brooke Elliot, who understudies for Madame Morrible. Chicagoans who didn’t get tickets have many more chances to see the show. After the tour leaves for San Francisco in June 2005, a Chicago company will take residence at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre for an open run. The cast will include SNL alum Ana Gasteyer as Elphaba and Steppenwolf ensemble member Rondi Reed as Madame Morrible.
wickedthemusical.com

Affection at Home
Storefront theatre, The Artistic Home, presents William Inge’s 1963 play, “Natural Affection.” Family dysfunction abounds as Donnie returns home from reform school to live with his mother (who gave him up to an orphanage) and live-in boyfriend. After Inge’s earlier career successes with Picnic and Bus Stop among others, critics and audiences were not as kind in the following decade.

This play flopped on Broadway, but The Artistic Home’s ambitious revival has received a few good marks. Despite a heavy-handed script that “has the earmarks of someone trying to compete with Tennessee Williams for theatrical shock value, but lacking the poetical language and intriguing characters that make for a satisfying evening of slumming with people’s many woes,” Windy City Times’ Scott C. Morgan praises the cast for their efforts and the design team for their attention to period details.

Chicagocritic.com’s Brandon Hayes writes, “Despite the bleak, even devastating vision of humanity in the play, what I experienced in the theatre was one of those absolutely thrilling evenings when every element of the production blends so perfectly, so richly that you are caught almost unexpectedly by the beauty of live performance.” The production’s three week extension proves that audiences are intrigued by this slice of recent cultural and theatrical history which also gives insight into the demons that lead to Inge’s suicide ten years after the play originally premiered.
theartistichome.org

Friends of Jeff
The 2004-05 Jeff Citation (non-Equity wing of the Jeff Awards) Nominations have been announced. Congrats to these productions and individuals of note.

  • Raven Theatre’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” received nods for Production-Play; Director, Michael Menendian; Liz Fletcher, Actress in a Principle Role; Mike Vieau, Actor in a Principle Role.
  • The Hypocrites’ “Equus” for Production-Play; Geoff Button, Actor in a Principle Role; Sean Graney, Director.
  • The Bailiwick’s “Parade” for Production-Musical; Ensemble; David Zak, Director; Brenda Didier for her choreography; Amy Arbizzani, Ronnie Duncan, Sean Reid, and Nicholas Foster for their performances.
  • Visions and Voices’ “Arrangement for Two Violas” received a nod for Best New Work for playwright Susan Lieberman. John Sanders was recognized for his performance.
  • Live Bait’s “Camp Nimrod for Girls” was recognized for its Ensemble and choreographer, Brigitte Ditmars.

Another special shout out for our friend, Cassie Wooley (who sang at mine and Ernie’s wedding) for her nominated lead performance in White Horse Theatre Company’s Merrily We Roll Along.

jeffawards.org


Alright, friends, that is all for this time. Be well, and see you after Pride!


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

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