‘American Side Efectos’ is a Triumphant Solo Show Full of Anger, Humor, and Heart

American Side Efectos is a solo performance piece written and performed by Debbie Baños, which tells the story of Debbie’s mother, an immigrant to the United States from El Salvador, and her painful, years-long fight within the immigration system to become a US citizen. While the subject matter could easily set a dark tone, Debbie infuses the proceedings with enough humor, heart, and warmth that American Side Efectos serves as both a loving portrait of the Baños family and a scathing indictment of institutionalized racism.

The show’s set is deliberately straightforward, with only a few simple set pieces placed across the stage, all of which Debbie interacts with at some point. I have complained before about solo performance that is overproduced or extravagant, and this show understands the fundamental appeal of the form; that is, that solo performance is all about knocking down the fourth wall, stripping away the normal artifice of theatre, and speaking directly to the audience.

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REVIEW: Theatre in the Dark Adapts a Tale of Aquatic Hubris with ‘Moby Dick in the Dark’

I went into Moby Dick in the Dark (adapted and directed by Cory Bradberry) mostly oblivious, knowing little about the plot or characters of Moby Dick other than what I’ve absorbed through cultural osmosis. I was very excited, as I’d edited two previous reviews we published about Theatre in the Dark productions — I was intrigued by the company’s approach to all-audio, live Zoom theatre, and wanted to see what the hype was about. I logged into the Zoom waiting room and, according to the company’s recommendation, made myself a hot drink and found a comfortable, dark corner to sit in.

There is something very primal and exciting about a live audio-only classical tale of risk and adventure — and without all the flair of in-person theatre, a stripped-down, barebones approach to a famously overhyped text is an enormously clever idea. The sound design and original music from Nick Montopoli do a lovely job of setting the mood, with some minimalist violins and drums, the evocative and harsh crashing of ocean waves, the textured creaking of wooden ship planks, and the shrieking of seagulls. The adaptation from Cory Bradberry aptly and succinctly condenses the story into something listenable. In its original iteration, the book (I’m told) contains many long, meandering explanations that are only tangentially related to the plot — and here, they are either cut entirely or reduced to a few essential sentences. At only 90 minutes, I can only assume this is a tight adaptation of Herman Melville’s gargantuan classic.

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A Straightforward Monologue About Grief: ‘The Catastrophist’ at Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre

The Catastrophist, written by Lauren M. Gunderson, is a filmed one-man play about the playwright’s husband Nathan (William DeMeritt). Gunderson’s non-fiction drama introduces us to this epidemiologist who has devoted his entire life to the study of pandemics, also known as the massive cultural event we’re all currently stuck inside. One might then expect The Catastrophist to be a play about science — but it ends up being a play about death, and grief, and how to live with the inherent unpredictability of the world even as you strive to predict it.

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REVIEW: A Fascinating, Intimate Video Chat in ‘What is Left, Burns’ at Steppenwolf Theatre

What is Left, Burns is the story of a video call between two men — college professor Keith (K. Todd Freeman) and his former student and lover Ronnie (Jon Michael Hill), who are holding their first conversation in fifteen years, with all the complicated emotions that entails. At only twenty minutes long, What is Left, Burns is a short, sweet, poetic, and heartfelt meditation on the thorny business of negotiating intimacy at a distance. Despite seemingly not being set during a pandemic, its setting echoes the situation we currently find ourselves in — when nearly all close communication must be digitally mediated, all profound emotions filtered through a screen.

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REVIEW: ‘The Spin’ at Interrobang Theatre Project is a Tense, Hilarious Nightmare

The Spin is the story of an hour-long Zoom meeting between four publicists at the same firm, as they scramble to prepare for a TV interview involving one of their clients, the assistant to a local Mayor who had dealings with a recently scandalized – and promptly canceled – politician. Their mission? To spin the media narrative in the Mayor’s favor, to discredit the journalists with evidence against him, and to hide the fact that not only was the disgraced politician in question a former client of theirs, but a close personal friend to Deirdre — the head of the firm, and our protagonist.

Zoom theatre (as we’ve covered at length) is enormously difficult to do effectively, and The Spin is the best execution of it I have seen so far this year. Zoom’s most perilous flaws as a medium for storytelling are the same flaws that make it so frustrating in real life: the lags, the glitches, and the feeling of isolation. In my opinion, the best Zoom theatre takes these flaws and thrusts them into the spotlight, using them as fuel for the story’s conflict rather than ignoring them. The Spin does this in spades, and in doing so it manages to tell a searingly relevant, disturbingly hilarious, and incredibly tense story that manages to transcend both its medium and its subject matter.

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REVIEW: Her Honor Jane Byrne at Lookingglass Theatre, and the Paradox of Civil Violence

Long, long ago, in the before-times of March 2020, I went to see a show at Lookingglass Theatre called Her Honor Jane Byrne. I wrote a review of it, but then the entire world shut down, the production’s run was cancelled, and the review never saw the light of day. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests and displays of police brutality that have been in the public eye this past month, the subject matter of Her Honor Jane Byrne has never been more relevant, timely, and worthy of analysis. We reached out to Lookingglass, and they gave us the go-ahead to publish this review of their cancelled show.

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Mercury Theater Shuts its Doors

Mercury Theater became the latest Chicago-area theater to announce devastating news last week, as they announced they would be closing permanently. Unlike Steep Theatre, this closure was directly caused by the economic impacts of the pandemic; in an interview with the Sun-Times, executive director L. Walter Stearns cited extreme loss of revenue as the reason for closure.

In a statement on their website, Mercury Theater said: “We sought to bring a little joy to the world and have made many friends along the way. Thank you to the artists who have been a part of our legacy. And thank you to the audiences who have supported our neighborhood theater.”

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Steep Theatre Loses Edgewater Space

Steep Theatre announced yesterday that they will be forced to move out of their current space at 1115 W Berwyn Avenue this fall.

According to Executive Director Kate Piatt-Eckert, “Steep intends to stay in the Edgewater neighborhood and continue to deepen its relationships with long-supportive neighbors as it moves forward with a focus on inclusivity, accessibility, and flexibility. Steep Theatre is not a building – it is a league of fearless artists, bold leaders, and passionate supporters equipped with nineteen years of experience producing storefront theatre and almost two years presenting music and performance at The Boxcar.”

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In Defense of the Casual Phone Call

We are living in anxious times.

I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say about the larger issue of coronavirus. By all means, please stay home, wash your hands, and practice as much social distancing as possible. Here’s an excellent article about how social distancing will help and the best ways to practice it, as well as some cool, informative visualizations that show the scope of the problem.

I do, however, have something to say regarding mental well-being in these anxious times. I, for one, am doing everything my therapist has taught me in order to keep my anxiety under control; indoor exercise, yoga, meditations, and long walks outside (staying six feet away from anybody I see) have all worked wonders. But I won’t lie; I have found social distancing to be surprisingly difficult so far, and as of this writing it’s only been about three days. I’m not a social creature at the best of times, but strangely, I have within me at all times an unquenchable desire to be a social being. As an introvert, the closing of bars and restaurants hasn’t affected me much; I prefer hanging out one-on-one with people, especially people I haven’t talked to in a while.

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‘Lipstick Lobotomy’ at Trap Door Theatre Explores Gender in Mental Health

Lipstick Lobotomy, written by Krista Knight and directed by Kate Hendrickson, takes place in a women’s sanitarium in the early 1940’s, conveyed here by a delightfully unsettling green-and-white color palette across the production that evokes the eerie sanitized atmosphere of a hospital. We meet our main character, Ginny (Ann Sonnevile), as she arrives at the hospital straight off the heels of separating from her husband. Ginny immediately meets and befriends fellow patient Rosemary Kennedy (played with a lovable charm by Abby Blankenship, and who is, yes, of those Kennedys). Rosemary struggles with her own mental disability, and against her family’s desire to make her undergo a lobotomy, while Ginny undergoes the opposite struggle. She wants to get a lobotomy in order to stave off her lifelong depression, but her family is understandably horrified at the prospect.

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