‘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.

Continue reading “‘In Every Generation’ at Victory Gardens and the Continuum of Jewish Trauma”

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from the 50’s that covers topics of love and marriage, it’s no surprise that Once Upon a Mattress leans heavily on some outdated and reductive gender roles for its laughs.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.

Continue reading “A Joyfully Genderqueer Romp in ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ at Theo Ubique”

‘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.

Continue reading “‘The Fifth World’ at Teatro Vista is a Captivating Audio Horror Adventure”

‘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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.”

Continue reading “Mercury Theater Shuts its Doors”