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2  500x72By J. Scott Hill

The first thought I had after seeing Writer’s Theatre’s production of Days Like Today was: who has a four-season vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard?  I don’t doubt the possibility, just the probability.  So many other plays and films and television shows and books depict profoundly wealthy people closing up their Martha’s Vineyard escapes in the fall.  Many of the hotels, shops, restaurants, and other businesses on Martha’s Vineyard completely shut down for the winter.  As the action of Days Like Today hurdles mundane months from scene to scene, the principal characters all just happen to land at the Martha’s Vineyard getaway house on New Year’s Eve.

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Days Like Today is a little farfetched, and a bit pretentious.  Still, Laura Eason’s adaptation is far less farfetched and pretentious than its inspiration, the plays of  Charles Mee (particularly Summertime), and Days Like Today is more engaging.

Days Like Today is the story of a young woman, Tessa, left at the altar for no particularly compelling reason. Tessa’s father, Frank, is a classics professor who is gay and dating a much younger man, a former student of his named Edmund.  Tessa’s mother, Maria, is a cougar who is sexually adventurous and dating a younger man, a former dance instructor of her daughter’s named Francois. (Get it?  Her husband is named Frank and her boyfriend is named Francois and they are both teachers.  Really!?) Tessa’s misery is further complicated by a pizza delivery guy, James, who falls in love with her at first sight, and who just happens to have a Ph.D. in classics, just like her dear old dad.  By the time everybody shows up at the Martha’s Vineyard house on New Year’s Eve, most of them are surprised to find that Tessa has not left there since her wedding day disaster.

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Either Tessa’s job — translating the photo captions of a single Italian coffee table book into English and French — pays extremely well and in advance, or she has a duffel bag full of small unmarked bills, because if she were getting any money from either of her parents they would have known that she was still at the vacation house.  Such inconsistencies, annoyances, and first-world problems are prevalent enough to make even a Glencoe audience raise a skeptical eyebrow.  Laura Eason has done a fine job of rhinoplasty on the upturned nose of Charles Mee’s plays, but a rewrite would make the characters more organic and thereby more sympathetic.

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Luckily, Laura Eason’s book is paired with Alan Schmuckler’s amazing songs.  Tuneful and catchy, poetic and profound,  from “10,000 Times” to “Tuscany” to “Quartet,” Schmuckler’s music and lyrics carry this story into our hearts.  Some of the credit for the wonderment in the music goes to the musicians, particularly the complementary playing of Paul von Mertens on woodwinds and Carmen Kassinger on violin/viola.  Like nearly every piano played in a theatre pit band at any time anywhere, the piano played by Austin Cook should be turned around with the harp facing the wall, and a mattress placed between the piano and the wall to muffle the sound; from a seat in the audience of any reasonably acoustically designed theatre, a piano onstage almost always sounds too loud.

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Days Like Today is graced with a phenomenal cast of singer/actors. The jilting groom Arnaud is played by Jarrod Zimmerman, who is fine in the role, but justifiably doesn’t have a lot to do.  Tessa’s new suitor James is played to charming effect by Will Mobley. Jonathan Weir as Frank, Susie McMonagle as Maria, Stephen Schelhardt as Edmund, and Jeff Parker as Francois could each deftly carry Days Like Today, if the narrative were told from a different angle. Emily Berman’s subtle performance as the emotionally overwhelmed Tessa is only surpassed by her extraordinary alto.

Days Like Today is an unconventional love story full of actors and songs you will likely adore, actors and songs that are able to largely make up for residual pretentiousness in the characters and story that adapting playwright Laura Eason did not quite delouse from the original Charles Mee source material.




(“Days Like Today runs through July 27 at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. 847-242-6000.)

Writer’s Theatre

Days Like Today production photos by Michael Brosilow.

* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Days Like Today – Writer’s Theatre – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago


The Second City Etc's performance of "Apes of Wrath"By J. Scott Hill

I suspect that the funniest, edgiest writing done nowadays for The Second City e.t.c. is being done by women.  Not that I find anything in particular about the content or delivery of recent revues that overtly indicates a woman’s touch. The Second City e.t.c.’s last revue, A Clown Car Named Desire, was the funniest, edgiest Second City revue by any cast in recent memory, and  e.t.c.’s new revue, Apes of Wrath, maintains A Clown Car‘s high standards while it so happens to keep the same three female writer/performers — Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, and Punam Patel.

Sketches cover such topics as the inanity of the new media outlets that have sucked the viability out of newspapers, anti-vaccinationists, purity balls, artificial intelligence, that old acquaintance one occasionally runs into who is still living in the long-gone glory days of high school, and an apology from a Christian apologist on behalf of the rest of the faith.  This wonderfully acerbic show bares its fangs and claws at our ridiculous modern world and tears away at the juiciest morsels for our delighted consumption.

The Second City Etc's performance of "Apes of Wrath"

Plus, at one point in Apes of Wrath, the line “Fuck you, Neil deGrasse Tyson!” is uttered.  Since I will admit to no small amount of hero worship for Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, “Fuck you, [Pluto denier of all Pluto deniers] Neil deGrasse Tyson!” might very well stand as the high point of my years in the audience.

This entire ensemble is praiseworthy.  Asher Perlman is the show’s metronome: he maintains the pace with his infectious energy.  Eddie Mujica disappears into a wide variety of characters, especially when he is working off the audience as Pepe, an immigrant about to take his United States citizenship test.

Tim Ryder is new to the e.t.c. stage, but a familiar face around Chicago’s improv and sketch comedy scene.  Ryder excels at bringing a warmth to cold and emotionally distant characters — whether he is playing a socially inept chess savant or the (dwarf) planet Pluto.

The Second City Etc's performance of "Apes of Wrath"

The men in this ensemble are terrific, but the best moments in this stellar show mostly come from the three women. Carisa Barreca spends the show subverting the image that the audience likely infers from her sweet Mary-Tyler-Moore smile, and we fall into her trap every time.  Punam Patel is a performer who has always been outstanding, but just keeps getting better — and is one of the sharpest improvisers working in Chicago today.

I am often surprised by which Second City people move on and when; that Brooke Breit has not yet been seduced out to New York or Los Angeles is a blessing for Chicago, but is overdue.  Sitcom or sketch comedy, on camera or in the writers’ room, Brooke Breit’s talent is ripe for an even wider audience.

Razor-sharp Apes of Wrath is a worthy successor to A Clown Car Named Desire on The Second City e.t.c. stage.  A superb ensemble — led by Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, and the amazing Brooke Breit — are not afraid to cut anyone or anything down to size.


3-1/2 STARS


(“Apes of Wrathis in Open Run at The Second City e.t.c., 1608 N. Wells, Chicago — in Piper’s Alley. 312-337-3992)

The Second City – Performances – Apes of Wrath


Apes of Wrath production photos by Todd Rosenberg.


* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Apes of Wrath – Second City – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago

BW1 500x72By J. Scott Hill

As Chicago struggles to put this winter of nearly seven feet of snow (and repeated bouts with polar vortices) behind it, the Beast Women come back for their 2014 Spring Series2014 Spring Series marks their second round of shows in their digs at the Den Theatre.  The Den Theatre has a couple of very cool, intimate spaces perfect for the kind of late-night entertainments the Beast Women provide.  Plus, the Den is home to one of the coolest lobby bars in the city. The Beasties are a good fit for this venue, and — for those who dare the ascent up the Aztec pyramid of a stairwell up to the Den — vice versa.

Sassy emcee Michelle Power remarked that Beast Women 2014 Spring Series opening night marked the 175th performance of the all-female cabaret.  It is a credit to the producers of this longstanding variety show that they are still able to find fresh, vital new performers to complement their stable of veterans.  The first act, singer-songwriter Dhaea (DYE-ah), makes catchy, heartfelt music.  Her song “Stairwell” could easily find a home in medium rotation on WXRT right between Death Cab for Cutie and Jason Mraz.  With Dhaea’s smiling voice, and clever hooks like “When morning comes, I’ll say good night,” three chords and the truth have seldom been as gleefully infectious.

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Several of the acts aimed to titillate.  Burlesque beauty Boobs Radley showed the audience nearly all of her country charms to the tune of KD Lang’s “Big-Boned Gal.” Vaudezilla Vixen Zara Estelle teased the crowd in a bright blue coiffure and — eventually — precious little else. Kiss Kiss Cabaret Coquette Camille Leon slunk and slithered across the stage to Skylar Grey’s cover of “Addicted to Love.”

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Beast Women co-producer and performance artist Jillian Erickson shared her madness with an excerpt from her solo show 3:00 a.m.: Slipping Beyond the Boundaries of a Bruised Mind.  Spoken word artist J. Evelyn rendered powerful, poetic images of someone downtrodden and abused.

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Shelley Miller, a singer/songwriter clearly influenced by Lucinda Williams, deftly bent her guitar’s strings as she played and sang her bluesy number, “Walk Away.” Comedian Mary Zee dragged the appreciatively guffawing audience through her life, covering topics such as drinking (and not-drinking) challenges, her sister’s baby, and her parents’ first date.  Lauren Lewis and her ukulele charmed the crowd with a witty ditty about dating a zombie.  Kamani Raqs belly-danced with hypnotic levels of control, elegance, and art.

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Singer Sparkle Motion stepped out of her usual house/electronica/R&B vibe to deliver a heartfelt blues dirge a cappella (featuring the glorious cosigning, harmonizing, and ham-boning talents of Medina Perine). With lyrics like “I want my knife to go in your neck until I feel something scrape,” Sparkle Motion turns the tables on such misogynistic blues standards as Louisiana Red’s “Sweet Blood Call” and empowers the hell out of herself.

Beast Women 2014 Spring Series will be a different show each night, so the line up of performers you see may vary considerably from those mentioned here, but the Beast Women have proven themselves over and over again to be the best female variety performers in Chicago, period. So, put on your crampons and invite a sherpa or two to join you in the climb up the Everest-like stairs to the Den Theatre.  You may not find any Yeti, but the Beasties you will see are sure to delight.


3 1/2 STARS

(“Beast Women 2014 Spring Series” runs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. through June 14 (with the new talent showcase Beast Women Rising on Sunday, June 8, at 7:00 p.m.) at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago..)

The Den Theatre

Beast Women Productions

Beast Women 2014 Spring Series performance images by Hunter Matthews.


By Venus Zarris

In what can best be described as the ultimate character defining performance, Melissa Lorraine blazes across the stage of Theatre Y’s remarkable production and becomes Medea. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Medea throws open hell’s gates to deliver catastrophic wrath upon her opportunistically philandering husband, Jason. Rage so complete can easily fall into a one-dimensional portrayal, yet Lorraine’s Medea fires on so many emotional and intellectual cylinders that we are taken with her on a mesmerizing descent into well articulated madness.


Poet Robinson Jeffers has penned a beautiful adaptation of Euripides’ horrific tale of betrayal and revenge, made even more lyrically lovely and dramatically bleak by this macabre staged hallucination. Director Kevin V. Smith takes us on a theatrically Dali-esque journey through the text of this classic tale by realizing a stream-of-consciousness dreamscape. The surreal backdrop of fluctuating artistic imagery and dramatic styles jolts the story out of its conventionally classic milieu and blasts the audience into a thought provoking unreality. Smith throws Medea down Alice’s rabbit hole and what emerges through this wild looking-glass is a sometimes inspired, sometimes distracting, yet always fascinating purgatorial suspension of disbelief.

Theatre Y presents a rare artistic collaboration between an artist, Melissa Lorraine, who grounds the story in staggering emotional authenticity and an artist, Kevin V. Smith, who bewilders the text with fantastically stylized kaleidoscopic surrealism.


Just as Katharine Hepburn defined Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer or Patti LuPone defined Eva Peron in Evita or Margaret Hamilton defined the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, Melissa Lorraine defines Medea. We feel for her anguish, we grasp the gravity of her unrelenting dilemma and we are horrified by who she is transformed into. Lorraine commands the focus; she reveals every intimate devastation and diabolical dreadfulness of Medea. She owns the stage and the completeness of her performance affords Smith the latitude to play as he wishes with all other aspects of the production. There is not another actor in Chicago who could manifest Medea so resplendently atop such whimsical directorial artistic license. You will be hard pressed to find another actor anywhere who could create a Medea as nuanced and as eviscerating.


Aaron Lamm and Nicholas Wenz deliver performances that are wise beyond their years as Medea’s children. Simina Contras brings a hypnotic ferocity to the stage with her physically overwhelming and emotionally beguiling performance as Medea’s devoted servant, The Nurse. Kevin V. Smith and Hugo Duhayon’s improvisational work with the Chorus of Corinthian Women bookends the production in a very present and contemporary context of genuine and personally poignant revelation. The exceptional costume, makeup and hair design by Branimira Ivanova and lighting design by Devron Enarson add intriguing visual depth to this unique interpretation.


Once again, Theatre Y creates a production that is as extraordinary in vision and delivery as it is provocative and captivating. You will be challenged and rewarded by this incredible offering. You will be absorbed by the imaginative twists and turns of the staging. You will be haunted by the heart wrenching intensity and creative chaos of this singular Medea.


3 1/2 STARS


(“Medearuns through June 1 (Thursdays-Sundays at 7pm) @ Theatre Y, 2649 N. Francisco Ave. located in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. 708-209-0183)

Medea production photos by Devron Enarson.

Theatre Y


By Venus Zarris

“Beware this gypsy. She flirts with lunacy!”

Babes with Blades is no stranger to theatrical risk taking. As a matter of fact, their mission statement (“Babes With Blades Theatre Company uses stage combat to place women and their stories center stage…”) is itself a unique and provocative endeavor.

In their current production of L’Imbecile, the Babes deliver deliciously decadent delusions of deviant debauchery and diabolical dilemmas. This fantastical production is as maniacally wild as it is marvelously intoxicating.


Playwright Aaron Adair brilliantly appropriates Verdi’s Rigoletto, subtracting the music and replacing it with madness. Director Wm Bullion amazingly animates Adair’s intricate hallucination with stylized vision and an unwavering ensemble. Each character completely inhabits their unreality as they convince us of this courtly tale of sex, betrayal and revenge. Bullion’s uses of percussive syncopation and Kabuki theatrics create a mesmerizing theatrical spectacle.

The staggeringly delightful cast is comprised of vixens, female and male, most enticing. Maureen Yasko is a wickedly wonderful and completely commanding queen. Amy E. Harmon is both haunting and hysterical in a tour de force performance as Priestess and Gypsy. Kathrynne Wolf grounds this otherworldly phantasm with breathtaking emotional authenticity in the midst of a stylized asylum of chaos.


Babes With Blades go BIG and go BOLD in L’Imbecile and the payoff for their audience is incredible. Do NOT miss this outrageous theatrical triumph!



 (“L’Imbecile “ runs through May 10 at Rivendell Theatre, 5775 N. Ridge Ave. 773-904-0391)

 L’Imbecile images by Steven Townshend and Johnny Knight.

Box Office: 773-904-0391

L’Imbecile ~ Babes With Blades

Brown Paper Tickets ~ L’Imbecile

Depraved New WorldBy J. Scott Hill

As Chicago starts to thaw enough for the dibs chairs to go back into the basement for another year, The Second City offers up its 102nd revue, Depraved New World, now playing on the Mainstage.  Improv legend (and Founder/Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre) Mick Napier directs this  talented troupe to take up the arms of satire against a sea of first-world troubles.

Depraved New World confronts a wide range of contemporary issues.  There are sketches about expectant fathers and about gluten intolerance.  Both sides are played against the middle concerning the Affordable Care Act.  Feminist backlash in a post-feminist world is explored.  This may sound like a list of possible topics for a Ph.D. candidate’s dissertation in one of the social sciences, but Depraved New World manages to still be mostly populist while having some smarts — and laughs.

Depraved New World

One of The Second City’s greatest strengths has always been the assembling of the right ensemble, and the ensemble that wrote and perform Depraved New World work together like six fingers on a single, not-quite-normal hand. Steve Waltien, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, and Chelsea Devantez all face promising futures in sketch comedy.  John Hartman has the dorky boyish charm of Scotty McCreery with the frenetic physicality of a seven-year-old trying to burn off mega-doses of Hawaiian Punch and birthday cake.

Depraved New World

The brightest bright spot in Depraved New World was also the brightest bright spot in last year’s A Clown Car Named Desire (still playing at The Second City E.T.C. because it’s just that good), Mike Kosinski.  Whether he is distinguishing himself among other skinny white guys in a satire on diversity, or taking a self-congratulatory group of firefighters beyond the edge of mere celebration, Kosinski is the one all eyes gravitate toward.  Mike Kosinski has It.

Depraved New World is consistently funny.  This solid ensemble, led by the antics of John Hartman and Mike Kosinski, may not be groundbreaking or particularly edgy, but it will surely warm you up with laughter and kick the last of your seasonal affective disorder right in the polar vortex.



(“Depraved New World” is in OPEN RUN at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. 312-337-3992.)

The Second City


Depraved New World production photos by Todd Rosenberg.

Venus in Fur 500 x 72.DBy J. Scott Hill

For those of us who are old enough to know what we like and don’t like in the romance department, we all have our kinks.  In America, we are so secretive about this that even I — someone who considers himself a freethinking progressive person — just referred to sex as “the romance department.”  Our pent-up Puritanical roots seem to always be showing, gray and scraggly.

In the Goodman Theatre’s current production, Venus in Fur, masochism is explored.  The title Venus in Fur is borrowed from a novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism is named.  The play begins with Thomas, the adapter/director of a new play based on Masoch’s novel, fed up with auditioning actresses for the lead, Vanda.  Then, who walks in after all other auditioners have long gone but an actress named Vanda who just happens to show up in a bondage-y outfit with a carpetbag full of appropriate costume pieces.  Thomas ends up reading with her.  Hijinx ensue.

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Director Joanie Schultz has taken her hand to masochism in Venus in Fur in much the same careful and non-judgmental way she did to morbid obesity in The Whale last year at Victory Gardens. Schultz is a brilliant young director who has proven herself many times around Chicago and elsewhere. Schultz is that rare young director whose talent is already mature enough that her directorial vision and art are not impeded by the chore of staying true to the script, in both letter and spirit.

Schultz’s labor is surely eased by her talented cast. Rufus Collins, as Thomas, has one of the more daunting tasks that an actor can face: he has to play someone who is not an actor who, at times, is attempting to act.  For any actor to appear convincing in a role in one moment and then to play that character as convincingly inept at playing a role in the next moment is a daunting and continuous chess game; Collins handles this better than many others could.

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Amanda Drinkall, who plays Vanda, is faced with a similarly Herculean labor: to play an actor who is convincing in a difficult part, then to play the same actor when not acting, eventually to play one persona splashing over into the other.  Still, Drinkall demonstrates more than just breathtaking range here. This is one of the most simultaneously subtle and grandiose performances in recent memory, and an early contender for one of the year’s best.

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Venus in Fur is funny and sexy and tame enough to titillate an American audience without scandalizing very many. David Ives’s play makes a big deal out of the difference between “ambivalence” and “ambiguity.” There is a purposeful ambiguity here, and not the ambiguity the audience is fed along the way about whether Vanda is an actor or a persistent fan or maybe even a goddess.  The purposeful, and somewhat vexing, ambiguity here is whether the scene is supposed to be read as real: is the audience watching a play about an audition, or is the audience watching a play about two lovers role-playing an audition?  No doubt most audience members will make up their minds one way or the other, but the lack of definitive resolution on this point detracts somewhat from the pleasure of it all — and pleasure is what Venus in Fur is all about.



(“Venus in Furruns through April 13 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. 312-443-3800)

Venus in Fur ~ Goodman Theatre

Venus in Fur production photos by Liz Lauren.

Ring of Fire  500 x 72.ABy J. Scott Hill

America’s love affair with Johnny Cash lasted for about the last sixty years of his life, and will no doubt continue forward into perpetuity.  While Cash was most often categorized as a country artist, he was attendant to the birth of Rock and Roll at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1955.  Cash led a complicated and interesting life, which would make great subject matter for a musical featuring his incredible music. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is not that show.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, currently playing at Theatre at the Center, is not really a musical at all, but rather a showcase of Johnny Cash’s music — music almost exclusively from the first third of his long and successful career.  While the program notes claim that the setting of this show is “Johnny Cash’s life (1932-2003),” the dates that the included songs were released run mostly between 1955 and 1975.  This show is less appropriate at a musical theatre venue than it would be running in a theatre in Branson, at Dollywood, or at Opryland.

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The talented cast of singers and musicians in Theatre at the Center’s production Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash does a pretty good job with Cash’s early catalog.  The role of Johnny Cash himself is split between a Young Johnny played by Michael Monroe Goodman (who spent two years with Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo), and a more mature height-of-fame Johnny played by Kent M. Lewis.  Mercifully, neither performer tries to pull off a full-blown Johnny Cash impersonation; both actors instead focus on just a handful of Johnny Cash’s physical and vocal mannerisms — enough to convey the spirit of the Man in Black without resorting to caricature.

Cory Goodrich, who plays June Carter Cash, is an amazing singer, particularly of selections from musicals and the Great American Songbook.  June Carter Cash, by her own admission, was not an amazing singer; she was a so-so yet diligent singer for whom comedy came far more naturally than music.  June was the clown of the Carter Family (incidentally, she studied acting with both Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner).  Cory Goodrich does what she can with this part, but she is just too technically skilled a singer to convincingly stoop to June Carter Cash’s vocal style.

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Multi-instrumentalist and Musical Director Malcolm Ruhl adds richness to the sound of many numbers with his work on the bass fiddle and resonator guitar.  His six-string acoustic guitar work and vocal performance on “Delia’s Gone” is a highlight of the show.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is full of solid interpretations of some of Johnny Cash’s classic songs.  The glaring absence of songs recorded after 1975 or so — most notably, “Hurt,” “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” or any of the other tracks Johnny Cash did with producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s and 2000s — leaves the audience wanting more, but not in that good way performers strive for.  The talented singer-musicians are given very little story here upon which to exercise their acting chops.  The narrative thread is ultimately threadbare, little more than a series of segues.  The performers deserve better.  Johnny Cash deserves better.



2-1/2 STARS


(“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs through March 30 at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)

Theater at the Center

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash production photos by Michael Brosilow.

* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Ring Of Fire – The Music Of Johnny Cash – Theatre At The Center – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago


Rusalka  500 x 72.05Lyric Opera of Chicago


By Antonín Dvořák

By Lori Dana

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was a musical revolutionary. One of a handful of maverick European composers who ushered in the 20th Century with a distinctly modern orchestral style, Dvořák is not the first composer who comes to mind when we think of opera. Although he composed ten operas during his lifetime, only one, Rusalka, is part of the modern opera repertoire. Fairly successful in its time, Rusalka has been infrequently produced today. What notoriety it has achieved is largely due to the efforts of Lyric creative consultant Renneé Fleming, for whom Rusalka was a career watershed. Dvořák’s dark and sensuous tale was the vehicle that catapulted her to opera super stardom.

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Lyric Opera’s dazzling new production of Rusalka turns the spotlight on each fascinating aspect of the Czech master’s modern folk tale in turn: brilliant choreography, compelling production design, and visionary direction are just the beginning. Incredible depth of casting down to the smallest supporting role, and a powerful orchestral performance that brings every facet of Dvořák’s masterful instrumentation into focus, are at the heart of Lyric’s Rusalka.

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Famous for the synthesis of Czech and other Slavic idioms both musical and literary in his compositions, Dvořák chose the tale of a water nymph that falls in love with a human prince as the basis for Rusalka. The libretto, written by Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil, matches the tone of Dvořák’s music perfectly: achingly romantic, but with a dark and brooding perspective always hovering at the perimeter of the narrative. For their part, the Lyric production team has envisioned the story’s idyllic wood as the backwater of a post-Industrial wasteland, setting the tale in the Victorian era, its Golden Age opulence concealing dark Gothic overtones. Outfitted with a distinctly contemporary steam punk aesthetic, set designer John Macfarlane and costume designer Moritz Junge connect Gothic with Goth, Industrial Age with Post-Industrial apocalypse. These are visuals that a young contemporary audience can connect with, combined with the costume drama that traditional operagoers crave.

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We know we are in for something new from Rusalka‘s very first scene, as wood nymphs in the form of soot-smeared street urchins, engage in lewd shenanigans beneath a gigantic full moon. Their cavorting awakens the water goblin Vodnik (Eric Owens) who, rising from the steaming lake at center stage, attempts to capture one of the randy creatures for himself. Owens, whom we found disappointing in Lyric’s 2010 production of Hercules, has gone on to critical successes as Sarastro in The Magic Flute and as Alberich in Das Rheingold, both at the Metropolitan Opera. Here, he shows those best colors, his rich voice lending gravity and pathos to Vodnik, who also happens to be Rusalka‘s father. When she finally appears, the lovely water nymph stands in stark contrast to the band of woodland ragamuffins. Gliding onto the scene in the palest of blue gowns, soprano Ana María Martinez shows remarkable grace and stunning physical acting skills as she bobs gently up and down in a watery choreography while singing a flawless aria. (In fact, she very rarely sings standing up in this role. It is a tribute to her tremendous vocal talent that she sings beautifully from so many different physical positions, including lying down.)

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Rusalka has fallen in love with a handsome prince (Brandon Jovanovich) who comes often to swim in the lake. Jovanovich, with his sweet, clear tenor and devastating good looks is perfectly cast as the romantic object of Rusalka‘s very human desires. The nymph decries the fact that because she is made of water, the prince is unaware of her presence and cannot feel her embrace. She begs Vodnik to help her become a human being, not only so she can experience her prince’s love, but so that she will have a human soul that lives on after death. He tells her to seek the counsel of the witch Ježibaba (Jill Grove). As Rusalka conjures the sorceress, Ježibaba is preceded by her familiars: three ravens in tailcoats and top hats who flap and flop their way down from the top of an abandoned concrete tower and onto the stage, looking oddly like the 1940′s cartoon crows Heckle and Jeckle. Ježibaba is all gypsy mystic, layered with flounces, bracelets, and beads and full of warnings of dire consequences. There is a price for Rusalka‘s transformation: she will lose her ability to speak, and if she fails to capture the prince’s heart, they will both lose their mortal souls to eternal damnation.

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As one might suspect, this tale cannot have a happy ending. Although in the beginning he woos her ardently and spirits her away to his mansion for an expedient wedding, the prince soon tires of Rusalka‘s muteness, which he interprets as reticence. He drifts back toward a former love, a glittering foreign princess (Ekaterina Gubanova) who eventually rejects him. Rusalka collapses in despair at the sight of them together, but not before Martinez deliver the wrenching aria “O marno to je.” No longer the dreamy romantic, Martinez’s Rusalka is torn apart, not a mythical being but not fully human, her heart shattered and spirit broken. As Vodnik appears to curse the prince, Rusalka tries to retreat to her watery home, but finds that she cannot.  She and the prince are inextricably bound for eternity.

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A cautionary tale on many levels, Rusalka reflects the composer’s strong Catholic perspectives on commitment and spiritual honesty, as well as modern director David McVicar’s unique take on the seedy underpinnings of material success. In addition to the countryside, wasted by industrial excess, the first glimpse we get of the prince’s environment is not the gilded ballroom with its gigantic fireplace and herd of mounted deer heads. It is the filthy underground kitchen; walls covered with greasy soot and blood from the gigantic beef carcasses that dominate the scene from their ceiling hooks.  Here the kitchen boy (cheekily portrayed by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack in a trouser role) and the gamekeeper (Philip Horst) worry about the strange creature their master is about to marry. Being true to one’s nature, personally and in terms of the environment, are strong underlying themes here.

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Framing it all is Antonín Dvořák’s beautiful music, magnificently and powerfully delivered by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, with music director Sir Andrew Davis at the helm. Rarely will you hear an opera in which the orchestra is treated to so many stunning star turns, and as always the musicians of Lyric more than meet our highest expectations. Rusalka may be the least known of Lyric Opera’s offerings this season, but it may well be its crowning creative achievement. In the past, opportunities to experience this jewel of the Slavic repertoire have been few and far between. This Rusalka could very well change that for good.



(“Rusalka,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 16 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Rusalka production photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Barber of Seville  500 x 72103Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Barber of Seville

By Gioachino Rossini

By Lori Dana

Of all the great Italian operas, Rossini’s romantic comedy, The Barber of Seville, is perhaps the most universally loved. The story of a devil-may-care matchmaker and meddler, even the most indifferent among us knows Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!  Lyric Opera’s brilliantly conceived new production employs a heady combination of bold aesthetic, breathtaking musicianship, and deft direction to give this old favorite just the right amount of contemporary flair.
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Led by the incomparable Nathan Gunn in the role of Figaro, the cast of stellar singer/actors includes the lovely Isabel Leonard in her Lyric debut as Rosina, along with Alek Shrader (whom Lyric audiences hailed as Tamino in 2012′s The Magic Flute) as Almaviva, and audience favorite Kyle Ketelson as Don Basilio. The plot is simple: Count Almaviva has fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Rosina, and she loves him. The problem is, she has a guardian, the crotchety old Dr. Bartolo (hilariously played by Alessandro Corbelli), who also has romantic plans for her. Enter The Fixer: the dashing barber Figaro, who has a plan to get the young lovers together. This is where the fun really begins!
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Gunn’s Figaro is overflowing with sexy joie de vivre, and his big baritone is in top form. He and the orchestra conversed with perfect ease, wowing the opening night audience, a packed house in the face of a major January snowstorm.  Under the baton of young Rossini specialist Michele Mariotti, the Lyric Opera Orchestra was more than up to the task, performing with incomparable precision and joyous passion. After an opening scene in which his voice sounded tight, Shrader really opened up in his first scene with Gunn, his vocal style imbuing Almaviva with just the right amount of youthful uncertainty, and giving the audience their first taste of the witty and facile sung dialog that gives this Barber a delightfully sly, tongue-in-cheek quality. Tall and lithe, with a dramatic, waist-length sweep of black hair, Leonard’s sweet demeanor and velvety mezzo create the compelling combination of feigned innocence and sultry temptation that makes Rosina irresistible to the young count.
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This season, Lyric casts have shown greater depth in the supporting roles, employing more experienced artists and showcasing developing talent in smaller parts. Ketelson plays Don Basilio with a kind of quirky energy, and as the overbearing guardian, Corbelli is alternately fusty and infatuated. Ryan Opera Center member Tracy Cantin makes a strong comic appearance as Berta. Improved casting, a noticeable ramp-up in production values and progressive direction choices make this season the first in which general director Anthony Freud’s world-class vision for Lyric Opera is most evident on the stage. Tony award-winning director-choreographer Rob Ashford, makes his Lyric debut with The Barber of Seville, treating his audience to a fresh interpretation and a most charming aesthetic. Characterized by the evocative use of iron scrollwork framing the stage, set designer Scott Pask informs each scene with detail: a balcony railing, a crowning dome, a background colonnade. The use of a revolving stage combined with silhouetted dancers forms a beautiful carousel that moves the audience from one scene to the next. Brought into sharp focus by the use of brilliantly colored lighting, the sets are the perfect foil for Catherine Zubers’ gorgeous, creamy colored costuming. The entire effect is one of gaiety and charm that sets just the right updated tone for Barber. This production is tip-top, a consistently clever and insightful interpretation, right down to the contemporary language of the supertitles and hilarious choreography that brings the humor full circle via the superb Lyric Opera men’s chorus. By the time we reach the happy conclusion in a flurry of rose petals, Gunn’s Figaro has us all in the palm of his hand, and the harsh weather outside the walls of the Opera House seems very far away indeed. A triumph.



(“The Barber of Seville,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through February 28 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Barber of Seville production photos by Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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