Victory Gardens Theater has found its new Artistic Director in the multi-hyphenate and accomplished producer Ken-Matt Martin (he/him/his). Chicago artists may know him best as the Associate Producer at The Goodman, where he co-created and curated the Future Labs new play development program with Jonathan Green and Quenna Barrett. Regionally, Martin’s resume is just as impressive, beginning with his co-founding of Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, a company inspired by the Black Arts Movement. He served as Pyramid’s Executive Director until 2018, and it is there where his aesthetic compatibility to Chicago becomes clear. At Pyramid, Martin directed Ike Holter’s Prowess, and produced Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies, both shows that ran to great success at Chicago companies. He then put his skills to action to national acclaim as the Producing Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival where he produced the revivals of Raisin in the Sun directed by Robert O’Hara, Ghosts starring Uma Thurman, and numerous other world premieres.
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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.
Manuel Cinema, a studio known for its combination of shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music design, presents its adaptation of A Christmas Carol that artfully melds the iconic story of Ebenezer Scrooge with the contemporary situation of COVID-19. Dropping the English accents, this crisp-and-swift 60-minute adaptation succeeds in feeling both relevant and refreshing while staying faithful to the essence of the well-known story. To do this, the story introduces us to Aunt Trudy (N. LaQuis Harkin), a woman who has lost her husband to COVID-19 but decides to continue his storytelling holiday tradition of puppeting the story of A Christmas Carol.
Wally World, written by Issac Gómez and co-directed by Lili-Anne Brown, is a two act radio play produced by Steppenwolf Theatre. The show revolves around employees at the fictional superstore Wally World (akin to another actual large corporation with a similar name), who face the complicated tension and stress of having to work on Christmas Eve. While the store continues to be in complete chaos on the front end, things behind the scenes are just as bad if not worse as the store manager’s position of power is threatened and challenged throughout the hard workdays.
Wally World tries to give the realistic perspective of what it’s like for employees of a large company to be working over the holidays… least to say, it’s not ideal. If you’ve ever been forced to work retail during the holidays, this show is certain to bring memories flooding back. Beyond a reach for authenticity in what it’s like to work retail for a large corporation, this play seeks to ask poignant questions about capitalism, activism, harassment, white supremacy, and labor exhaustion. Wally World’s ideals are similar to other plays like Lynn Nottage’s Sweat or any similar “kitchen sink drama” that involves a variety of diverse characters who get chances to shine in beautifully written monologues about their internal struggles.
I sat in my living room with my candles burning, lights dim, and a warm sugary cup filled with flavored tea, as suggested by the production team, and intently listened to the Theatre In The Dark’s A Christmas Carol. In this 70 minute live audio play, I was whisked away into the inhospitable world of Ebenezer Scrooge, guided by only my imagination and a team of talented actors and audio engineers .
Western culture is obsessed with adapting different versions of A Christmas Carol throughout the years, whether through the means of big spectacle plays, large budget films, or even comic books. However, as I’ve grown I’ve found that with every passing year I somehow still love this tale for its striking relevancy even as the holidays and I become more estranged from one another — as I’ve grown older and more cynical, and as they’ve grown more commercialistic and vapid year by year. This A Christmas Carol stays true to the same classic holiday ghost story written by Charles Dickens that has lived on for hundreds of years. This production doesn’t try to change the words, reimagine, or re-adapt the original because it doesn’t need to. It only strips down the well-known story to create a complex radio play that feels like a thrilling tale told around a fire. Theatre In The Dark even encourages its audience to have virtual listening parties for the performance to allow communal connection with others.
Based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a bittersweet tale about love against all odds. This year the annual Lookingglass Theatre tradition is going digital with an on-demand recording of the 2019 production. Ensemble Member Mary Zimmerman’s playful take on this holiday tale is a dazzling treat for the whole family. Invite a little magic into your home with this spellbinding hour of holiday entertainment.
I, like so many others around the world, am still coming to terms with the fact that I won’t see my family this holiday season. I won’t go home for the holidays, I won’t have anyone in my own home, and all those family traditions will have to be reimagined, if practiced at all. American Blues Theatre is reimagining some traditions of their own, adapting the second longest-running holiday play in Chicago for Zoom. It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is a retelling of Frank Capra’s classic film about one man’s integral role in his community. This cheerful (and unapologetically digital) adaptation invites the audience to revel in the strangeness and find something to celebrate from their own little square.
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.
ABOVE: Costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart with her infant during a Zoom meeting. Says Bart, “This was in August back before baby had mastered crawling and pulling himself up to stand. He could sit still for longer periods then.” Photo Credit: Rick N. Ho
A Homecoming Turned Convalescence
When Chamblee Ferguson caught COVID-19, he’d been performing eight shows a week in the national tour of Broadway’s “Come from Away.” Playing to packed houses in dozens of cities amounted to infinite vectors of exposure. On March 12th the tour was playing his hometown of Dallas and his long time company, the Dallas Theatre Center, was hosting a celebratory reception when news broke of the citywide shutdown. Four days later he was symptomatic.
“I woke up on the 16th feeling, I’m sick, thinking, I hope this isn’t—but, it turned out to be, yeah.” Ferguson’s wife, actor Lynn Blackburn (who happens to be my stepsister), her mother, and their 6 year-old were ill for two weeks with respiratory symptoms Ferguson describes as “comparatively moderate.” Eight months later the couple find themselves unemployed while parenting their first grader full time, one of countless theater families whose lives have been upended by this crisis.
Parenting in theater was challenging before the pandemic. Now, embattled families must endure school closures, a collapsing daycare industry and skyrocketing positivity rates. As our industry reels from a tidal wave of layoffs, furloughs and canceled shows (virtual work notwithstanding), theater parents have the additional stressor of keeping their children healthy, learning, and fed at moment so many have lost, or will soon be losing, their health coverage and a quarter of American families struggle with food insecurity.