‘The Secretaries’ at First Floor Theater is a Subversive Farce about “Hiller”‘s Nazi Germany

Written by Chicago playwright and actor Omer Abbas Salem, The Secretaries is a funny and subversive farce set in a parallel universe’s Nazi Germany. Salem (he/they) is a well known Chicago actor and one of our city’s most exciting emerging playwrights. While The Secretaires is their first true in-person production, Salem’s work has been developed at the Goodman, Jackalope, Steppenwolf, National Queer Theater, and The New Coordinates.

The theatre canon is filled with stories about the Holocaust and, from Cabaret to Sound of Music, big musical numbers about mass genocide. Salem’s script, with its creative alterations to history, offers audiences something new and provocative. This play’s four dynamic characters, outfitted in Aryan Drag, struggle through their time employed as Secretaries at “Hiller’s Office of Mysteries.” Yes, Hiller, not Hitler.

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‘In Every Generation’ at Victory Gardens and the Continuum of Jewish Trauma

While I knew to some degree that In Every Generation would be covering topics of Jewish oppression and trauma, I didn’t anticipate that it would poke and prod at me in such a genuinely unsettling way. In the opening scene, the youngest member of the family is made to sing the usually-sung-by-children Four Questions song despite being a full adult, an awkward moment made doubly so when she forgets the words. As a former Passover baby myself I was able to mouth along perfectly, barely restraining myself from shouting “It’s ‘Anu matbillin!’” when the character messed up — and from that point forward, I was inextricably drawn in.

In Every Generation at Victory Gardens Theatre is defined by this discomfort; that first awkward moment kicks off a harrowing fictional Passover seder where the Levi-Katz family is made to confront their myriad dysfunctions in such a way that leads both the family and the audience to consider fundamental questions about Jewish identity. While the show succeeds tremendously as a moving family drama that examines both the deeply personal and the urgently political, I found myself off-put by some of its philosophical conclusions. Perhaps that is the point.

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A Joyfully Genderqueer Romp in ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ at Theo Ubique

Once Upon a Mattress is a 1959 musical comedy that presents a goofy reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” It tells the love story between the adorably awkward (and misleadingly named) Prince Dauntless and the bombastic Princess Winnifred (or Fred to her friends), buoyed by a supporting cast of royals, nobles, and courtiers embroiled in various scandals, japes, and shenanigans. Being a comedy from the 50’s that covers topics of love and marriage, it’s no surprise that Once Upon a Mattress leans heavily on some outdated and reductive gender roles for its laughs. The smart way around this, which director Landree Fleming has employed to hilarious effect, is to lampoon and subvert those roles at every turn — primarily by showcasing a cast that is visibly and joyfully trans, non-binary, and queer.

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Rivendell Theatre Returns With the Harrowing and Haunting World Premiere of ‘Spay’

In the Appalachian town of Williamson, West Virginia, jobs are scarce and opioids are plentiful. Spay, a new play by Madison Fiedler, focuses on one Williamson family’s struggle with addiction at the height of the opioid epidemic. Sisters Harper and Noah Attridge, played by Krystel McNeil and Rae Gray respectively, are together again under the same roof after Noah’s public overdose at a youth baseball game. Over the course of one sober and sobering week, temptations come knocking at the door with the promise of relief. But at what cost? Rivendell Theatre’s world premiere production, directed by Georgette Verdin, is the promising introduction of a stellar script that deserves consideration from any theatre company currently planning their next season.

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‘The Fifth World’ at Teatro Vista is a Captivating Audio Horror Adventure

Ever since the smash hit true crime podcast Serial aired in 2014 and catapulted the medium into the national spotlight, many audio storytellers have taken that formula — that is, a plucky reporter from out of town comes in to try and solve a highly personal mystery — and tried to fictionalize it with, in my opinion, limited success. Podcasts like TANIS, The Message, and Limetown tend to run up against the issue that the truly appealing thing about Serial was how off-the-cuff it felt, consisting as it did of Sarah Koenig talking to real people about real things. The obviously staged feeling of most fiction podcasts works against that tone a great deal. So how do you create a story that works in this formula?

Well, if you are triple-threat playwright, lead actor, and co-director Gabriel Ruiz in The Fifth World at Teatro Vista, the answer seems to be that you lean as hard away from realism as possible, embracing the limitless possibilities of audio to create something otherworldly, strange, and transcendent.

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King James Scores Big Like Lebron at Steppenwolf Theatre

 

Rajiv Joseph’s King James directed by Kenny Leon opened last night at Steppenwolf Theatre to a rocking auditorium. It’s my first time attending an opening under the new artistic directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis. It’s only my second time attending an opening of this scale for a production I haven’t worked on since the pandemic took root. I mention this because the theater had an air of a championship game, some dressed in their best jerseys, others their best faux furs. The audience came for an event, and King James delivered. 

The play’s title is inspired by LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, who just set a career record of 30,000 career points on March 13th, during opening night of this production. (!!!!) 

As you step into the Downstairs theater, DJ and actress Khloe Janel is setting the vibe, spinning records in the box seats. The audience is rocking to 2000s hits preshow, singing Usher’s “Yeah!” to each other and waving at friends, invoking the spirit of attending a game more than a play. As the DJ winds down her set, the entirety of Marvin Gaye’s National Anthem washes over the audience (sound by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen). Lights come up on Matt (Chris Perfetti, Abbott Elementary) alone in a wine bar, Le Cafe Du Vin. He is sitting on the counter, crumbling a piece of paper into a ball. He makes an aspirational shot at the trash can and misses. Shoot, miss, shoot, miss. Finally he brings the trash can on the counter to make the shot – as Shawn (Glenn Davis) enters.  Continue reading “King James Scores Big Like Lebron at Steppenwolf Theatre”

Visions for 2022: A Letter From the Editor

Pictured: Editor Regina Victor (they/pharaoh), photo by Gracie Meier.

It feels strange to share my Visions for 2022 in a moment of staggering global and industrial insecurity. I stand in solidarity with those whose hearts are dedicated to the theatre—to the art of conscious gathering. We are on the verge of another ending. Or perhaps, a beginning. We simply have yet to decide.  

I believe strongly that every person reading this has the power to transform this moment from an ending, into a beginning. The creativity I have already witnessed from artists, to healthcare professionals, to teachers is what gives me the audacity and the strength to write about how we can dream bigger and better, together.

 

Trust

I don’t have all the answers, but in all this inconstancy I have re-learned to rely on my mind. We spent an entire four year term being gaslit, no matter what side of the mayhem on which you found yourself. Schools of thought separated us from our friends and family before we even knew a global pandemic would further widen the distance between us.  

It does not matter what I am teaching. My pedagogy will always revolve around critical thought. It is the idea from which Rescripted grew, and it is where creation begins. Whenever I edit my essays, I can hear my professors saying “scratch out ‘I think’, it’s your paper, it’s all what you think.”

We are unused to speaking as though our opinions hold weight to anyone but ourselves. You can’t create a world onstage if you do not trust that you know how to transport your audience in the way only you can

Trust yourselves. Practice your intuition with regular gut checks. Here’s a very basic tool I used when first starting out in leadership – and sometimes still rely on – easy enough anyone can do it. Hold up both hands, assign an option to each, have a friend pick. Are you excited? That’s you’re gut pick. Disappointed? Do the alternate option instead. Repeat until you realize you already know the answer.

Trust each other. Trust can be inspired as much as it can be earned. Trust that you are putting out into the universe what is expected to come to you. Trust that the colleagues you choose to collaborate with will treat you with respect, and prioritize safety in the workplace. This is not saying to turn the other cheek. This is an exercise to help you notice, and then remove yourself from anything and everyone who betrays that trust. Trust is different from vulnerability, in that you are assuming your power and creating space for someone else to share their own with the goal of creating meaningful, consensual connection. Vulnerability on the other hand requires a sacrifice, an imbalance of power that is appropriate in some situations but not in an industry where abuse is so common.  

Mistreatment is so common in our industry, I found I actually needed to re-train myself to be surprised by dehumanization. I trust, and anything that betrays that trust becomes a non-issue, and a non-entity in my life. Trust that is given freely can be removed just as freely, and hopefully at little to no cost to self. Therefore giving your trust quickly is actually self protection and not vulnerability. Vulnerability means exposing your weaknesses and hoping the gesture is reciprocated. Trust, on the other hand, is not a weakness. Betrayal, deceit, and disrespect are the weaknesses. If your experience of applying this mindset is similar to mine, you’ll see those big shiny red flags waving and get out of dodge to the places you’re meant to be thriving.
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Midsommer Flight’s Unabashedly Queer, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Twelfth Night is a Delightful Feat of Whimsy

Helmed by Director Kristina McCloskey and Associate Director Stephanie Mattos, Midsommer Flight’s Twelfth Night transforms the four lush showrooms of the Lincoln Park Conservatory into the land of Illyria, a world populated by guitar-strumming jesters, sword fighting pirates, foiled lovers, and capering drunks. This queer-af adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies invites the audience to sing along to sea shanties, share asides with actors, and walk from room to room to explore as many as three simultaneously occurring plots.

A typical summary of Twelfth Night might go something like this: Viola, shipwrecked noblewoman, disguises herself as a man after being stranded in Illyria and separated from her identical twin Sebastian. However, the plot each audience member experiences will vary wildly depending on which of the simultaneously occurring scenes they end up watching. As director McCloskey says, “Audiences can enjoy the wide range of experiences as the characters would live them, meaning they will only have the perspectives of the characters they are following. Plots, secrets, and surprises will run amok — until the final scene when all is revealed and resolved.” I, for one, spent most of my time following the booze-soaked revels of side-character Sir Toby Belch (Grant Brown) and his clueless sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Lexy Hope Weixel).

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The New Coordinates Make an Impressive Return with the Radio Play ‘Love in the Time of Jonestown’

The New Coordinates, after a year of examining their internal practices and changing their previous name, brings to life Omer Abbas Salem’s Love in the Town of Jonestown, directed by Sophiyaa Nayar, as their first production since 2019. Salem is one of Chicago and American theatre’s rising voices if this past year is proof of anything. His play, The Secretaries, was workshopped earlier this year at Goodman Theatre’s Future Labs and will see its world premiere next spring with First Floor Theatre. His play Mosque4mosque saw a developmental production with Steppenwolf Theatre’s SCOUT department in March of this year. To list all his playwriting accomplishments in the last two years would run longer than the Bible! I mention this because The New Coordinates was smart to commission Salem right when his star is about to reach even higher- especially after listeners listen to this well-paced and devastatingly developed fictional recount of the events of Jonestown.

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‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’ at Porchlight Music Theatre radiantly outshines its script

Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off its 27th season with what it calls a “a country fried phenomenon,” and I can assure you it is precisely that. Set in a North Carolina diner/filling station somewhere off the highway, Pump Boys and Dinettes provides a scintillating peek into the lives and relationships of the guys and gals of the Double Cupp Diner.

Featuring a creative team that consists of core members of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theatre, this production is a love letter to hometown hospitality and nostalgia. Daryl D. Brooks’ direction is straightforward and concert driven, and works in smooth cohesion with the distinctive and stellar music direction by Robert Reddrick. The choreography by Rueben D Echoles gives the musical numbers an easygoing feel, and never distracts from the vocal prowess of the ensemble. The production stays devotedly true to its backroad roots, shying away from the modern audience’s expectations at every turn. While the book does very little to build the world of the play or illuminate its characters, the score distracts from the musical’s more shallow notes and eventually builds to a very heartfelt goodbye.

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