‘Our Dear Dead Drug Lord’ at Steep Theatre casts a bloody spell of empowerment for young women

Rich with blood sacrifices, teenage angst, and unfiltered punches to the gut, Alexis Scheer’s intimate and formidable Our Dead Dead Drug Lord is the play every 90’s kid lesbian must see this fall. Squeeze (the tenacious Elena Victoria Feliz), Zoom (the eager Lauren Smith), and Pipe (the imposing Isabella Maria Valdes) of The Dead Leader’s club assemble to welcome their newest member, Kit (the daring Isabel Rivera), who may or may not be the secret daughter of their latest subject of study, Pablo Escobar. At first, it seems like the girls’ biggest concern is convincing their private school to reinstate their official club status for their college applications and a disturbing yet familiar teenage lust for toxic men – but under the surface, they are wading through much murkier water.

Sophiyaa Nayar’s moving and tactfully directed production makes excellent use of Steep’s new home. Sydney Lynne’s crafty set design puts the audience inside the club’s scrappy treehouse. Produced in an old church with no lighting grid or rigging yet installed, lighting designer, Eric Watkins aptly illuminates the fort with a combination of string lights, lanterns, and a spooky swinging lightbulb.

As someone who used to have to frequently explain having a dead dad to other kids, most of whom wouldn’t experience a loss of the sort for many more years, I quickly learned that humor was the best way to prevent cloying attempts at empathy. The deep laughter throughout this play, and especially following the line “because my dad died,” was a dynamic display of artistic excellence with credit to both Scheer and Nayar’s comedic timing, which rang exceptionally poignant for me.

While my own admittedly anachronistic high school resume credit of Grief Support Group Co-Facilitator never involved seances or cocaine, the guilt, the shame, and suffering felt by Scheer’s willfully ferocious characters remain profoundly familiar and heartbreaking. I felt a visceral solidarity with the older women in the audience who clutched their friends’ hands for dear life (see here for a detailed content warning and list of mental health resources). And yet, with the most powerful piece of brujéria saved for the very end of the play, I left Steep Theatre more hopeful and empowered than ever.

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord runs at Steep Theatre’s new location, 1044 W Berwyn Ave, until December 10. Masks and proof of vaccination are required for this production.

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CAST
Kit – Isabel Rivera
Squeeze – Elena Victoria Feliz
Zoom – Lauren Smith
Pipe – Isabella Maria Valdes
Additional Roles – Liliana Renteria
Additional Roles – Adriel Irizarry

CREATIVE
Director – Sophiyaa Nayar
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus
Scenic Designer – Sydney Lynne
Lighting Designer – Eric Watkins
Associate Lighting Designer – Liz Gomez
Costume Designer – Serena Sandoval
Scenic Collaborator – Shannon Evans
Sound Designer – Matthew Chapman
Props Designer – Lonnae Hickman
Intimacy & Fight Choreographer – Gaby Lobotka
Choreographer – Jenn Freeman
Assistant Costume Designer – Jessica Gowens
Assistant Director & Brujéria Consultant – Daniela Martinez
Dramaturg – Kristin Leahey^
Dialect Coach– Sándor Menéndez
Production Manager – Jennifer Aparicio
Technical Director – Darren Brown
Co-Casting Directors – Lucy Carapetyan & Lisa Troi Thomas                                         Assistant Stage Manager – Lili Bjorklund
Graphic Designer – Stu Kiesow
Photographer – Jeremy Hall
Costume Embroidery – Uncommon Closet

‘Botticelli in the Fire’ at First Floor Theatre Paints a Raw, Toxic, and Familiar Portrait of the Italian Renaissance

CONTENT WARNING: This review and the production it covers contain discussions of sexual violence, including childhood sexual abuse.

Today, in a small beach town outside Barcelona, I feel a thrill of excitement as I stumble upon an almost-familiar work of art by Sandro Botticelli. A prudent maiden moves to cover the nude and iconic figure from his most recognizable painting, The Birth of Venus. This is not the colossal oil on canvas housed in Italy’s Uffizi Gallery, but a smaller portrait-shaped rendition with only two of the many figures shown. An adaptation by Botticelli himself, and just the week before I had seen another adaptation of this same painting at The Den, produced by First Floor Theatre.

I am obsessed with literature inspired by great paintings. Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Improbability of Love, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. These stories, inspired fictions about the artistic process, are all uniquely moving, evocative, and tragic. First Floor Theatre’s production of Botticelli in the Fire has all these same ingredients for success and more — an up-and-coming new director in Bo Frazier, spectacular design and production elements, a rockstar cast  — and yet, Jordan Tannahill’s script falls short of its potential.

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Babes with Blades’ Richard III Casts Disabled Actors to Tell Their Own Story

Kristen Alesia and Aszkara Gilchrist in RICHARD III from Babes With Blades Theatre Company now playing at The Edge Theatre through October 15.

With a cast entirely of women and gender non-conforming actors, Babes With Blades Theatre Company’s Richard III is meaty, violent, and reflective. A decimating opening battle sets the tone for this production of Shakespeare’s iconic history play, and thanks to Becca Venable’s lighting design, pools of blood-red light spill across the stage. But this story is not all about blood and death. Characters sing joyful music to celebrate victory, and even while mothers wail to grieve the dead, hope for a brighter and more just future is not far beyond the horizon.

In his famous opening speech, “Now is the winter of our discontent…,” Richard, Earl of Gloucester (Azskara Gilchrist, she/her), describes himself as “rudely stamped and want of love’s majesty,” and “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, // Deformed, unfinished.” Setting the stage for the play, he explains that because he cannot be a lover, his “deformity” drives him to be the opposite — a villain. Shakespeare critics and disability activists have long argued that it is necessary to have Gloucester’s role cast with a disabled actor, and with this production presented in partnership with the University of Illinois Chicago’s Disability Cultural Center, Babes with Blades has done just that. Gilchrist, in a gripping performance, uses her mobility device as a percussion tool, smartly accenting Shakespeare’s already rhythmic pentameter as she plots to crown herself king in penance for the world’s scorn.

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‘Get Out Alive’ at Haven Theatre Makes Space for Us to Grieve

Nikki Lynnette describes herself as a “possibility model,” rather than a role model, in her autobiographical afrogoth punk-pop musical Get Out Alive. Lynette, an acclaimed hip-hop artist, shares her life story and recounts past suicide attempts, psychiatric institutionalization, her mom’s battle with cancer, and how she made it out alive. This musical is part memorial, part memoir, and part indie concert. The show features live performance mixed with engaging video testimonies and dynamic projections designed by Chris Owens.

Within the Bookspan lobby at the Den Theatre, Haven’s producers curate a punk rock memorial space for the loved ones we have lost and the parts of our own selves in need of healing. Statistics plaster one wall reading “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide,” and “Nearly 50 million Americans have mental health issues.” Another wall has the prompt “I get out alive by…” Markers are laid out for audience response, and you can peruse a bountiful list of self-care tips already written by previous attendees. A table is stacked with resources for those suffering from depression and/or thoughts of suicide.

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‘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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