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.

Playwrights
  • 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.
Troupes
  • 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.
Playhouses
  • 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.
Shakespeareans
  • 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,
Elizabeth

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!

Shakespeare, Spectacle, and the Whedonesque; or, “Much Ado About Nothing”

“Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig,
a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot
and hasty like a Scotch jig—and full as
fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a
measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes
repentance and with his bad legs falls into the
cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.”
– Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, II.i.60-6

Many years ago in Chicago I went to a theatre company’s trunk show, a kind of fundraiser-cum-preview of the new material they were working on that season. It took place in the foyer of one of those massive old midwestern theatres, whose two-winged grand staircases are now only rattled by tweens on their way to a concert. Over the staircase the troupe had hired a pair of acrobats to do the kind of ring and rope work that we see in the masque scene of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I had seen such rope-dancers before, not only at theatrical events like that done by Strange Tree Group or Redmoon Theatre, but also the very occasional swank holiday party. To me they signify the kind of experimental entertainment, the “extartheatricals” Erika T. Lin calls them, that is cutting edge in that it is finding a new popular audience again (like puppetry, as I mentioned in my last post). With their inclusion in Whedon’s adaptationI found myself contemplating the sensation incurred by these kinds of theatrical feats, very much of the present and avant-garde, yet somehow essential and universal.

In her book Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Lin notes that in early modern usage, rope-dancing, those “balancing acts performed on a tight or slack rope,” was a form more common to playgoers than scripted drama (107). While “Shakespeare and his contemporaries are best known today for their scripted drama, records of payment…suggest that both representational theatre and spectacular physical displays were offered by the same performers at the same events and to the same audiences” (107). Whether or not Whedon knew this fact in particular, or has a nose for aesthetic tone, his incorporation of the rope dancers and the crooner at the piano inculcates the kind of theatre-going experience Shakespeare imagined for this play. To give these elements more weight beyond the spectacular, I think she makes two other points worth mentioning:

The pair of rope-dancers work above the mingling crowd. The attendees, performers themselves in masks, stop to appreciate the performance integrated into the party lights, even interact with the performers, and then move on.
  1. Double Space: “Spectacles of this sort existed in a kind of double space: even as they operated within a given play’s fictional narrative, they also served as legitimate entertainments in their own right. Jean Alter refers to these complementary aspects of of theatre as its ‘referential’ and ‘performant’ functions: theatre as semiotic system, employing both mimetic and non mimetic forms of representation, and theatre as spectacular show, akin to sports or the circus” (109). In short, we are asked to be simultaneously engaged in the awe of the feat as well as cogitating on the content of the play’s text.
  2. Show, Please, Delight:Delight is linked to physical nourishment and activity [in the Renaissance]: to the eating of sweetmeats, the sports of hunting and hawking. It is also connected specifically with presentational spectacles, with ‘triumphs’ and ‘shews’…Distinguishing the seeing of ‘showes’ from the hearing of verse, early modern writers underscore the notion that the popularity of displays of physical skill onstage lay in the pleasures they offered to the eye” (113). In other words, to behold with the eye engaged both the physical response of awe and the cognitive process of taking in.
Claudio gets exceedingly drunk as he watches Don Pedro court in his stead. He becomes increasingly paranoid in his stupor, and the acrobats replicate his worst fears.
There are two specific episodes in the film that I think draw out this doubled cognitive process, of being in awe and delight at a theatrical feat that then triggers more complex cognitive processes. The first is the masque, of course, both celebrating the victorious return of the soldiers and giving Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) an opportunity to court Hero (Jillian Morgese) in Claudio’s (Fran Kranz) stead. Some critics have suggested that Whedon’s pressure on alcohol as the source of much of the confusion in the film flattens the agency of the characters. (Note the now rather ubiquitous promotional image of Claudio in goggles—*cough* beer goggles *cough*—holding a martini glass in a pool.) I actually like the implication of misprision (Shakespeare’s word) being at first caused by the party atmosphere, but also that the condition of masking and male competition are equally culpable social norms that induce Claudio’s jealousy. This is conveyed not through dialogue, but editing of non-verbal cues. We listen to the song “Sigh No More” while we get a number of shots, entirely without dialogue, of Claudio anxiously watching Don Pedro between taking shots. We then see Don Pedro lean in and Hero smile and giggle: obviously he has won her, the champion and military man that he is, for Claudio. But then the film immediately cuts back to the rope-dancers executing a complex move wherein they balance one atop the other, a positioning mildly suggestive. Whedon implies here that the thought that Don Pedro has won Hero for himself is in Claudio’s mind long before the villainous Don John expresses it to him. In this way Claudio is rendered more complex, more human and susceptible to the vicissitude of emotion rather than a man merely and easily manipulated by next voice that whispers in his ear.
Even to the last, Claudio struggles to perceive beyond the mask.

The second episode is that of the funeral-wedding, where again we get a song lofting over a presentational scene that does more of the meaning-making than the text. The women are all again masked, this time in white lace funeral shrouds they will also adorn at the wedding ceremony. Hero and Beatrice (Amy Acker) watch from above as Claudio leads the funeral procession, the weight of his choices and the power of his hateful words seemingly coming to roost by his “confirm’d countenance.” Hero sadly smiles, as if in hope for her wedding day. At the wedding itself the women remain enshrouded; for, “a woman masked, like a covered dish, gives a man curiosity and appetite” (III.i, The Country Wife, William Wycherley). If we are convinced by the previous interlude scene that Claudio is repentant—as in the epigram Beatrice suggests is part of that which renders the course of love less than smooth—then we can find something satisfying and recuperative about his union to Hero. In her taking on the mask and feigning death, we can also find some agency for Hero: she has learned to accept that identity is itself inherently performative, and finally participates in the actual masking that is courtship.

I think in the playtext this is hard to see, and I often prefer adaptations like that of ShakespeaRe-Told and Funk It Up About Nothin’ that provide a Hero that rejects Claudio and resists repentance. While Claudio clearly has a character arc, in her resistance Hero can have as clear an arc, too. (I also prefer productions that stress Beatrice and Benedict (Alexis Denisof) over Hero and Claudio, but found the reversal here refreshing.) This is the only aspect of the film I would have changed, and was a change I actually expected out of Whedon. It has been nearly a year since the film began making the festival rounds and causing a stir, and I have hesitated writing about it precisely because the film portends to have everything I love: the cheek and style of Whedon, the language of Shakespeare, and the gritty piquancy you get when one makes a film in twelve days, in one’s home, using your best friends. (And what friend of Nathan Fillion wouldn’t want to seem him take on Dogberry.) Because the film encompasses the spectrum of tastes I so enjoy, I felt it would be impossible to get any kind of distance from it to say something substantive. Yet now I think it is precisely this quality, that Whedon’s work really does encapsulate an inherent sensibility of Generation X—those late-20s-/early-30s-somethings reared onThe Fresh Prince, Phish, Buffy, and Pearl Jam, who watch in horror at the political apathy of their younger Millennials—whose balance of camp, sophistication, quality, and bite make his films worth watching.


  • CITATION: Much Ado About Nothing. Film. Adapted and directed by Joss Whedon. Written by William Shakespeare. 14 June 2013. LA: Bellwether Pictures, 2012.
  • As of this posting this film is streaming both via Amazon Prime Instant and Netflix. See the US trailer below: