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by Michael Van Kerckhove
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
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.
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.
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.”
Two Weddings and a Circus
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.
Wicked in Chicago
Affection at Home
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.
Friends of Jeff
“Chicago Scene” columnist and playwright, Michael Van Kerckhove,
may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org