Behind the Curtain: In Conversation with Playwright-Director Monty Cole

On June 4th, as we reported, the four playwrights slotted for this year’s Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens published an open letter withdrawing their plays. On the evening of June 5th, as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Chicago drew thousands of marchers to the streets, I sat down (virtually) with Monty Cole for a wide ranging discussion of his project-in-progress, BLACK LIKE ME, that had been slated to headline Ignition. We spoke about the play, his progression from director to playwright, and how Radical Empathy is at the core of his work.

The following is a distilled transcription of our wide ranging conversation (minus many minutes of me fan-girling about his recent projects including his flawless BROTHERS SIZE at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, his triumphant INCENDIARY at Goodman New Stages, and the deceptively soapy ‘til it wasn’t KISS at Haven.) 

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‘The Chicago Artists Relief Fund’ Raises $75000, Doubles Fundraising Goal

 

The Chicago Artists Relief Fund was founded in response to the devastating impact of the quarantine on the performing arts community. Recent surveys have indicated 95% of artists have lost income due to the pandemic.

We didn’t need a poll to know that thousands of our peers, friends and collaborators lost their jobs and income overnight. The service industry jobs, the teaching artist jobs, and the wide variety of survival gigs artists rely on simply evaporated. The need is immediate and urgent. The founders of the Chicago Artists Relief Fund rose to the occasion.

Since March 15th The Fund has raised over $75,000 and distributed emergency grants to over 315 artists in need across a variety of disciplines. Today (May 4, 2020), they are announcing an updated goal of $150,000.

I caught up with two of the founders, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel (Jeff Award Winner, one of my favorite Chicago actors and fellow theater mama) and Elle Riley-Condit (Co-Artistic Director of The Syndicate). Continue reading “‘The Chicago Artists Relief Fund’ Raises $75000, Doubles Fundraising Goal”

‘We Found a Hat’ Takes the Wisdom of Sharing to the Preschool Crowd

Lifeline Theatre’s musical adaptation of Jon Klassen’s children’s book, We Found a Hat, shows a friendship put to the test. The play, adapted by Jessica Wright Buha and directed by Manny Tamayo follows two turtles, Sizi (Amanda Roeder) and Kai (Terry Bell), on a journey from their summer habitat to their winter burrow. To get there they must traverse a perilous desert. A meddling Cactus (Scott Sawa) makes a bet with the optimistic Sun (Gabriella Fernandez) that he can drive a wedge between these close friends. The setup has echoes of the devil betting God he can throw Job off his goodness game. The turtles unwittingly fall victim to this mean-spirited social experiment designed for The Cactus’s entertainment. The Cactus, personified as a menacing cowboy with a southern drawl and an excessively large hat, takes off said hat and leaves it in the path of the turtles, jumpstarting the conflict of the play. Continue reading “‘We Found a Hat’ Takes the Wisdom of Sharing to the Preschool Crowd”

‘Small Mouth Sounds,’ A Tender, Introspective Comedy

Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, directed by Shade Murray at A Red Orchid Theatre, is set at a silent retreat. Four strangers and one couple, have gathered to learn from an unseen guru (Meighan Gerachis) heard only through the loudspeaker system at the retreat center. As these characters camp out on the shores of a wooded lake coping with bug bites and bears, they reflect, communicate and seek inner peace. Continue reading “‘Small Mouth Sounds,’ A Tender, Introspective Comedy”

‘In the Canyon’ of America’s Grim Future

Calamity West has written a play set in a near future so plausible it feels as though we’re already, inescapably, locked into it. Produced by the Jackalope Theatre Company, In the Canyon begins in 2007 with Hope (Liz Sharpe) and her dud of a boyfriend, Doug, (Andrew Burden Swanson) on the afternoon they’ve ended an unintentional pregnancy. It’s a rational decision made by an ordinary woman, but this choice sets off a lifelong chain of events that carries us all the way to 2067. As we leapfrog from decade to decade in each subsequent scene, we watch America dismantled by patriarchal nationalist fervor. Mother earth rebels.

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Guards at the Taj: A Tale of Tyranny, Trauma and Resistance

Rajiv Joseph’s GUARDS AT THE TAJ, currently in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, and masterfully directed by Amy Morton, is as much a meditation on the soul’s need for beauty as it is a study of the mechanisms of tyranny. It’s 1648 in the city of Agra. Humayun and Babur are guarding the walled city-within-a-city where the Taj Mahal is being constructed. The all-powerful Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in mourning for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, has commissioned the most beautiful building in the world. At dawn he will finally reveal it. Will these two young men turn and steal a glimpse? This begins a cascade of questions about the bodily costs of exercising free will versus the psychological costs of suppressing it. Continue reading “Guards at the Taj: A Tale of Tyranny, Trauma and Resistance”

Ike Holter’s ‘The Light Fantastic’ is Horror-Comedy at its Smartest

The Light Fantastic combines Ike Holter’s brilliantly funny writing with formidable production design that makes the play, directed by Gus Menary, work on several levels. It’s a deliciously spooky thriller with a reverse Faustian twist. It’s an endearing romantic comedy. It a clever send-up of horror genre tropes (I likely missed five references for every one that I caught). And it offers up a refreshingly empowering narrative that hinges on female agency as opposed to the female helplessness the genre has long relied upon. The play also has a strong moral point of view as it touches on subjects as wide ranging as bullying, homophobia, taking advantage of your friends and the grave error of ignoring your mother’s phone calls. On a more philosophical level this play is about characters asserting the right to face death on their own terms as they grapple with Kantian questions of moral duty. Continue reading “Ike Holter’s ‘The Light Fantastic’ is Horror-Comedy at its Smartest”

Brett Neveu’s ‘To Catch a Fish’ Dramatizes a Real Life Tale of Entrapment

Brett Neveu’s world premiere TO CATCH A FISH, developed at Timeline and directed by Ron OJ Parson, takes on the morally repugnant practice of police entrapment. Neveu takes us to the peaceful Milwaukee neighborhood of Riverwest where in 2012 officers from the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau set-up a phony shop with an aim to lure the community into selling guns by offering to purchase them at triple their street value. This perverse incentive created a gun market where there wasn’t one. People started buying guns at local stores to turn around and sell them to the ATF, even going so far as to dredge up antiques and family heirlooms to cash in on the offer. Later, community members entrapped by this scheme were rounded up to face criminal charges. Continue reading “Brett Neveu’s ‘To Catch a Fish’ Dramatizes a Real Life Tale of Entrapment”

‘A Story Told in Seven Fights’ Investigates the Neo-Futurists Founding Myths

The energy at the Neo-Futurarium holds a lot of history for Chicago audiences and just being in a space where you’ve come to expect the unexpected generates anticipation. A Story Told in Seven Fights begins with a comic teaser fight in the lobby as the audience is waiting to be ushered into the theater. This cold open establishes the show’s major theme: the relationship between performer and performance. The show, a devised work created by Trevor Dawkins and directed by Tony Santiago, explores the explosive birth of Dadaism and its later clash with Surrealism. The throughline is an exploration of what founders contribute to a movement. The play asks: at what point does a movement become bigger than its founding vision and, perhaps also, at what point does a movement morph into something entirely different? Continue reading “‘A Story Told in Seven Fights’ Investigates the Neo-Futurists Founding Myths”

‘Kingdom’ is a Portrait of a Gay Happily Ever After

In his playwright’s note for Kingdom, Michael Allen Harris says, “Much of the popular queer media and scholarship focuses on queerness from a white, middle class, and urban context. And so, I took this play ‘home.’” The play, directed by Kanomé Jones, was developed in house as part of Broken Nose Theatre’s new play development program, The Paper Trail. Kingdom is romantic comedy with a touch of family drama. It centers around Henry (Watson Swift) and Arthur (Christopher McMorris), a gay black couple in their seventies, their lesbian niece Phaedra (RjW Mays) and their grown son, Alex (Michael Mejia-Beal). Continue reading “‘Kingdom’ is a Portrait of a Gay Happily Ever After”