March Blogroll: Illinois Theatres Edition

Dear readers,

Now that I am starting to plan a move to the Pacific Northwest (I’ve been hired!), I’ve been thinking about all the great theatre I’ve seen in Illinois in the last decade and how much I will miss its rigor and variety. From the storefronts, serious playhouses, and Broadway options of the city to the excellent community, university, and regional theatre of the plains, I’ve seen great experiments, start-ups, world premieres, and classics. I’ve also been able to see a great deal of Shakespeare’s canon, which has informed my own writing and research immensely. As the new season announcements begin to roll out this month, I offer here a list of venues, troupes, and playwrights I’ve come to love and recommend to anyone who might themselves be new and moving to the Midwest.

  • Sean Graney: As house playwright for The Hypocrites, he has been a long-time favorite of mine. I reviewed his Court Theatre production of The Comedy of Errors for Shakespeare Bulletin, as well as his award-winning All Our Tragic here on Bite Thumbnails.
  • Emily Schwartz: Emily’s taste and playfulness offers a new kind of macabre, reminiscent of something steam punk, something Beetlejuice, and something Tim Burton. The backbone of the Strange Tree Group (see more below), favorite productions of hers have been Funeral Wedding: The Alvin PlayThe Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins…Who Kill HimShakespeare’s King Phycus in association with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen. The last was produced in association with Steppenwolf Garage Rep and later ran as part of the New York Fringe Festival.
  • Tracy LettsAs a multiple Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Letts is arguably one of the most important writers and actors working in Chicago today. He is part of the prestigious Steppenwolf ensemble, and as an undergraduate I was able to see the premiere runs of his groundbreaking August: Osage County and Superior Donuts (starring John Michael Hill and Michael McKean). Despite its difficult content, his film Killer Joe (starring Matthew McConaughey), the play of which was done at UIUC around when I first arrived as a graduate student, is just as brilliant as August.
Two of the ladies at the heart of Strange Tree’s Doctor Crippen, Kate Nawrocki and Delia Baseman.
  • The Strange Tree GroupAs mentioned, Strange Tree is the product of several Indiana theatre students who came to the big city with a very unique perspective. While I list my favorite productions above, you can see my review of The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, their most successful staging, as well as my personal favorite, Shakespeare’s King Phycus, on the blog.
  • The Q BrothersThe ad-rap-tations have been one of my favorite discoveries while living in Illinois. These two brothers have found a way to transfer the sense of speed, exigency, and rhythm of Shakespeare’s texts to a modern audience, using instead the conventions of rap rather than iambic pentameter. It’s a brilliant multi-modal approach, balancing a playfulness with a serious tenor perhaps best conveyed today for audiences. I’ve seen their Funk It Up About Nothin’ in its several iterations, last summer got a glimpse of their Two Gents, and perhaps will get a chance to check out their Othello: The Remix this summer, which premiered first at the Globe theatre in London.
  • Redmoon: We were all immensely distraught when Redmoon had to shutter its doors last year. Their productions rethought how space and scale alters theatrical experience, making them part of the grand opening of Millennium Park and taking them to the White House. I encountered them during their outdoor summer spectacle, as well in their amazing theatre collaborations Cyrano and Tempest. (The cover image of this post comes from one of their summer spectacles.)
The Q Brothers are bringing back their Othello: The Remix this spring at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
  • Steppenwolf Theatre CompanyThese were the plays I saved up all my waitressing tips for. These were the plays that I had to walk home rather than hop the Halsted bus because I needed space to cry for several city blocks. The last thing I saw, Good People, was no exception.
  • Court Theatre at the University of Chicago: While I have reviewed two production at the Court—The Comedy of Errors and Porgy and Bess—it was several years prior that two other productions fundamentally changed how I experienced theatre. A January 2008 Titus Andronicus, silently framed as a elite club initiation rite, rattled my sense of where reality and play diverge. In November of 2008 there was Radio Macbeth, which melted my heart. I apologize for the hyperbole, but it remains nevertheless true.
  • Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre: Some of the first theatre I paid for as an undergraduate was at Victory Gardens. It was a few blocks from campus, and I saw my first Sarah Ruhl play, Eurydice, there. It also has the honor of abutting the alley where John Dillinger was shot (and the site where the Jonny Depp film was also shot).
Titus (Timothy E Kane) attempts to console Lavinia (Elizabeth Ledo) in the Court production of Titus Andronicus–a production that fundamentally changed how I thought about this early Shakespeare play.
Training Spaces
  • Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois: Krannert has been my home base for regular theatre for more than six years now. I have subscribed to the drama season since I first got to UIUC as a graduate student. It has exposed me to a great many texts I would not have otherwise sought out, dynamic ways to think about dramaturgy and stage design, and of course informed my teaching. I have reviewed a great deal of the MFA productions on the blog, but some personal favorites include Killer Joe, The African Company Presents Richard IIIClybourne Park, The Tempest, The Normal HeartThe Table‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Brooklyn Babylon.
  • Merle Reskin Theatre at DePaul University: Having once been a music student, I made many friends in the Chicago theatre community quickly. Some of those initial friendships and exposure happened at the Merle Reskin. Later, when I worked as a residential advisor, the Reskin routinely gave me free tickets to share with my residents for bonding events.
  • Athenaeum TheatreWhile the Reskin was my official university base, I think I saw more productions at the Athenaeum than anywhere else in Chicago as an undergraduate. The space isn’t one theatre, but many small blackboxes spread across multiple floors. The productions were often original, experimental, and inexpensive. I saw my first Will Eno play, Flu Season, there and now almost always teach it in my Studies in Drama course.
The Athenaeum performance space on Chicago’s north side.
  • Back Room Shakespeare Project: The project is doing something that I think, like the Q Brothers, recovers the kind of experience Elizabethans had when they attended playhouses in the sixteenth century. No director, one rehearsal, and in a bar (not unlike the inn-yard performances of early modern London), these are thoughtful and risky productions as I explain in my review of their Julius Caesar for Shakespeare Bulletin.
  • The Improvised Shakespeare Company at IO: These guys are everywhere, going on tour across the state, in Chicago and in New York using Shakespeare’s verse as a improv comedy tool. It is the thing I recommend most often to people visiting the city for only a few days; you get a taste of Chicago’s rich improv and Shakespeare traditions all in one bite.
  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company at the University of Illinois: As a graduate student studying early modern theatre, I have always felt lucky to have a entirely student-run troupe doing Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Producing between two and four productions each semester, the company gave me the idea for this blog, and was one of the first things I reviewed, an As You Like ItSome other favorites include a MUSE-inspired HamletThe Country WifeMacbeth, and last summer’s rather brilliant Othello.
  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago: This company does professional Shakespeare by the book. By that I mean no costumes and a bare stage along with prompters. In doing so, this company provides smart text-oriented interpretations, while finding clever ways to turn those prompters into props and costumes themselves. They perform across the Chicagoland area, but I have always seen them at their 10:00AM Newberry Library performances. I’ve reviewed them professionally (here) and am planning on attending their performance of Cardenio in a few weeks.
  • Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier: I have a vexed relationship with this theatre. It produces high-quality Shakespeare in a Blackfriars-esque performance space. Their casting problematically tends toward the coasts rather than drawing on local talent. And yet one of my favorite memories is of Sean Graney’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II back in 2008. (Apparently that was an important year for my relationship with Bill.) I am excited to be reviewing a couple productions as part of the City Desk initiative later this summer. Can’t wait? Two notable productions of late include the rarely-staged Pericles and a fabulous import of Hamlet.
  • Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Illinois State University: The festival has been a regular thing for several years now, where I have attended at least one production with two friends of mine, a theatre PhD and a librarian, every summer. Festival Shakespeare is a unique kind of theatrical experience, and while I will be sad to part with Bloomington, I look forward to adopting another festival in Ashland, Oregon.

I moved to Chicago from a small cow town in Hawai’i to study jazz. I had played in ensembles and as a pit musician starting in middle school. My mother, a flautist, would often let me hide inside the pit as a little kid so I could hang out and watch dress rehearsals for community theatre. So I came to the city to study music, but couldn’t seem to stay out of any kind of theatre, musical or otherwise. I changed majors, pursued other passions and eventually a doctorate. Illinois’ theatres have been with me all the while. They have been the back-bone of my performance education, and not the least of the things I am concerned to leave behind as I head west for a new adventure. I feel so grateful for all these theatres and artists working in the Midwest.

With many thanks,

P.S. It may go without saying, but any recommendations you have for theatre and Shakespeare (professional or otherwise) in the Portland area are most welcome!

Illinois Shakespeare Festival: “Q Gents”

The Q Brothers‘ latest project, Q Gents, was perfectly timed considering the start of the school year next week here in central Illinois. A tale of two football buddies whose love affairs bring out the best and worst in their friendship, the production is the latest in a fifteen-year run of rap-adaptations by the duo. I first saw them when they premiered Funk It Up About Nothin’ back in 2008 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and then again in 2010. Their Othello: The Remix was the US representative to the Globe Theatre’s cultural olympiad in 2012. Now the boys are back in Illinois workshopping a two-man show initially commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, played this summer at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and extended for two additional weeks at Illinois State University before they move onto the Three Oakes Theatre Festival in Michigan (in the company of one of my favorite Chicago troupes, The Hypocrites). While the program bills the production as “new work in progress,” by the time I saw it in its extended run it was streamlined, fast-paced, and polished. The Q Brothers specialize in rap-aptations of Shakespeare’s works, rewriting every inch of the text to fit conventional modes of contemporary rap rhythm, meter, and thematic tone. While we might think of this formula as something more akin to the Broadway musical than sixteenth-century theatre, instead this transposition recovers the lyrical quality and recitative speed through which early modern playgoers would have received the plays in their initial context.

Proteus (JQ) and Valentine (GQ) consider “getting some strange.”

As two male actors, both brothers needed to play female characters—another element of early modern performance. Not only did we get very smooth and very very fast quick changes—almost always on stage—but gradually the characters became self-aware and began to make fun of the plasticity between the genders. The baseline was a simple football jersey and cap, over which would be draped a halter dress and wig to demarcate female characters. It is when Julia herself needs a disguise to spy on Proteus that the fiction threatens to fall apart. She goes to the drama teacher for help, only  to discover a simple teal hat does the trick. Much is made of the hat’s covert powers, with winking and teasing of the audience that acknowledges the limits of costume to create fiction. The fun is in the same spirit as that of Rosalind in the epilogue to As You Like It, where the female character acknowledges the boy actor under her skin:

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but
it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue…I charge
you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of
this play as please you; and I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women—as I perceive by your simp’ring none of you
hates them—that between you and the women the play may please.
If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that
pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied
not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces,
or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy,
bid me farewell.

In acknowledging the limits of the materials used to conjure theatrical experience, both Rosalind and the Q Bothers highlight the creative capacity inherent in what we call “willing suspension of disbelief.”

A slightly adjusted stage design (DJ included) for the indoor ISU space.

The real display of mastery over Shakespeare’s language was in the development of the secondary characters in the production, particularly the coach, Speech, and Lucetta. As a close confidant of the semi-goth, semi-punk art chick, Julia, Lucetta is crafted as a Latino transplant with a thing for flautists. (The essential divide between Julia and Proteus is that because he’s a jock and she’s a nerd, they can’t openly be together in this high school setting.) While capitalizing on Latino wing-(wo)man stereotypes, in act four the play takes a breath to skewer the convention. Crab, the dog, has been made simply into the school’s mascot, and Speed the clown is now a drum-major in which the boys confide. He and the waterboy, Lance (and yes, Adam Sandler jokes were aplenty), at one point make a video advertising the position of waterboy’s assistant, to which Julia applies in her teal-hat disguise. Lance is a bit daft, connecting the lack of budget for new water bottles with a possible apocalyptic collapse, and so too is the coach, set apart by mercilessly mixing idioms to be totally without sense. In this way, the production uses costuming to initially build a character, but them gives them arc with through wordplay.

Speed (GQ) and Proteus (JQ) hatch a plan to woo Silvia.

Perhaps what made me most pleased about the production aside from the Q Brothers’ retrofitting of early modern practices to modern audiences was that it retains what I consider to be the play’s the essential tension. At the start, it would seem that Proteus is the “hero” or “good guy,” following his heart and rejecting football to spend time making art with his beloved. Valentine mocks him mercilessly and thinks of nothing else but the scouts and the homecoming game until he sees Silvia, and falls head over heals, too. He ends up cheating on an exam to prove his love, and is suspended not only from school, but the big game. In the meantime, Proteus has been conscripted back to the team and forced to reject Julia by dad, and so pursues Silvia instead. While Valentine is ennobled by his ordeal, Proteus’ worst traits are revealed. By the end of the play we aren’t sure who to cheer for or if there is anyone worth siding with. That Speed and Lucetta are crowned prom king and queen resolves the immediate discomfort, but the notion that you may never know one’s inner virtue until they are tested (even in a beloved) remains with you long after. If you can catch the Q Brothers’ this weekend at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts, I recommend you make time to do so.