All posts by jessicagable

Shakespeare troupes struggle to bring the Bard into Chicago classrooms

By Jessica Gable

Ever since Arin Mulvaney first performed Shakespeare with a high school troupe for elementary and middle school students, her dream has been to bring her beloved Bard and his work to younger children.

Today, she is the Artistic Director of Shakespeare All-Stars, a group of professional actors who travel around Chicago schools to present Shakespearean plays or scenes to a captive audience of students. They give about 15-18 performances a year.

“A lot of kids don’t have any experience with Shakespeare before high school,” Mulvaney said. “So for some people, especially elementary schoolers, they’ve never heard of this guy Shakespeare.”

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‘Dunsinane’ spins Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Jessica Gable

David Grieg’s Dunsinane may share a host of characters and a location with William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but the similarities to the Scottish play end there. Dunsinane, a production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a witty, gritty and sometimes uncomfortably familiar look at the aftereffects of foreign military occupation. Buoyed by spectacular performances, brilliant staging and a hefty amount of sheer novelty, Dunsinane overcomes its pervasive, somewhat heavy-handed metaphorical tone to shine as a unique and profound bit of stagecraft in its own right, independent of its illustrious parent.

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First Laughs, Second Time Around

By Jessica Gable

When Greg Luick submitted his one-act play, Work in Progress, to Piccolo Theatre’s First Laugh One-Act Festival last February, he wasn’t expecting to win. In fact, he hadn’t even expected to finish the play.

“It was originally a revue sketch that didn’t really seem to have an ending,” Luick said. “I wrote most of it 15-20 years ago and it was just sort of filed away. Then when I read the criteria for the First Laugh Festival, I was just sort of thinking about it and the ending just sort of popped into my brain. So, I just added that ending onto it and made it a one-act play. And that was what won the festival.”

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Second City’s Evil Stepchildren

By Jessica T. Gable

Michael Pieper approaches the craft of acting from very serious, ancient traditions. For him, the craft is rooted in Native American shamanism and his method of accessing a character is anchored by a very strong sense of spirituality. But he applies those traditions as a teacher at the premiere comedy institution in the Windy City- Chicago’s own Second City.

“I was drawn to shamanism when I was searching for my spirituality in my late 20’s,” Pieper, now 51, said. “I was raised Catholic and it just wasn’t clicking with me so I started to study other religions and I loved how shamanism connects you to the elements and the world around you.” Continue reading

Feminists Ride the Next Wave

By Jessica Gable

A buzz of high-energy conversation enveloped participants in the Goodman Theatre’s Context event at Wicker Park’s Geek Bar Beta on Tuesday, Feb. 17. Specialty drinks of all colors and sizes were poured and French fries and the bar’s Awesome Sauce consumed with gusto. Faces of women, who mostly made up the crowd of several dozen, and men grew flushed with feeling as they geared up for an evening discussing the topic of the Goodman Theatre’s current show Rapture, Blister, Burn: feminism and its myriad incarnations.

“It was so deep and there were so many layers,” said Shannon Downey, self-proclaimed geek and one of the evening’s discussion leaders. “I walked out of there and I didn’t know what to do. I was like ‘I sort of want to cry. I sort of want to punch someone. I sort of want to skip down the street. I don’t know!’”

Downey and other panelists led discussions about specific topics assigned to individual tables. The topic at Downey’s table of five was Women in Technology, Gaming and Geekdom. Other topics were #feminism, The Male Gaze Through the LGBTQ Lens, and Women in Comedy. Each person sat at two different tables of their choice throughout the evening.

Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo introduces the audience to four women with very different views on feminism, views that shift as the play progresses. First, the audience meets Gwen and Catherine- best friends who lost touch after graduate school and reunite 20 years later. Gwen dropped out of school to make a family with the boyfriend Catherine left behind when she moved to London and became a feminist scholar. Then there’s Avery, Catherine’s twenty-something student who identifies with the more inclusive focus of Post-Third Wave feminism, and Alice, Catherine’s mother who grew up in an era when women were expected to be homemakers and dependent on men. As the women navigate the range of modern feminist ideology from Schlafly to Friedan, the audience can’t help but do the same.

“It is such a conversation provoker, such a thought provoker,” said 23-year-old Goodman Theatre intern Nikki Veit. “We interns at the Goodman sat down for an entire lunch period discussing, debating, articulating, analyzing this play. I haven’t seen a play recently that has had this much impact on my life.”

Veit, who identifies as gay, tried the Women in Comedy table and then transferred to the Male Gaze Through the LGBTQ Lens group. She argued vehemently that the play lacked relevance to modern feminists.

“Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly…they’re so dated,” she said. “Right now, we’re talking about inclusivity. Like, different races, different sexualities, different gender spectrum. I think that’s the next step for feminism.”

Rebecca Kling, a transgender performance artist and educator, led the discussion at the Male Gaze table. She steered the conversation to topics not necessarily covered explicitly in the play. They included the power associated with men who ogle women and whether or not the gaze of gay men and women is or should be subject to the same scrutiny.

“With each subsequent wave of feminism there’s sort of been a fracturing,” Kling said, “but at the same time an expansion of who’s included.”

Feminism’s primary advocates are no longer predominantly middle class, educated young white women, said Kling. She encouraged the women at the table to welcome Post-Third Wave.

“We can’t be looking at just–in big air quotes–the idea of ‘womanhood’,” Kling said. “We have to be thinking about race and age and ethnicity and religion and economic status and all of those other things.”

The cast of Rapture, Blister, Burn discuss the modern views of feminism in a scene from the play. (Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre)

Puppets — not just Muppets

By Jessica T. Gable

On Jan. 22, a crowd descended on a small, intimate theater in Links Hall, a shabby studio caught halfway between Lakeview and Logan Square. They encountered a tiny bar complete with worn wooden countertops and rickety stools inviting them to indulge in a libation before the performance. And when the lights rose in this warm and fuzzy atmosphere, the definition of puppetry was challenged and expanded.

Nasty Brutish and Short Puppet Cabaret held several shows as part of the festival.
Vanessa Valiere performs during Nasty Brutish and Short’s Puppet Cabaret. PHOTO: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Poduced by Nasty, Brutish and Short, a puppetry company born of and bred for Chicago, “A Puppet Cabaret Program B” took the audience on a somewhat dreamy, psychedelic ride through various worlds. In this case, however, as in many productions that were part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival which ran Jan. 14-25, the term “puppet” is applied liberally.

“The definition of puppetry is way broader than anybody gives it credit for,” Mike Oleon, the show’s co-curator, said. “It’s not just marionettes, it’s not just Muppets, I mean there was supposed to be a dude stacking rocks. Like, the whole performance was stacking rocks. I don’t know what that means, but it’s puppetry.”

This year marked the first installation of the biennial Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which offered puppeteers from nearly 50 companies the chance to sample each other’s work in a concentrated, festival format. They also connected with the puppetry community in Chicago and those who traveled from outside the city to perform.

“As far as puppetry communities go, it’s huge,” Oleon said, laughing. “As far as any other community goes, it’s very intimate. It’s my hope that this festival will raise awareness that there’s phenomenal puppet work happening in Chicago and that there are several incredibly talented potential collaborators who are already doing great puppetry.”

The idea for the festival came to its artistic director, Blair Thomas, because there was no major puppet theater festival in the U.S., let alone Chicago, despite the city’s distinguished history in puppetry. In the early days of TV, Chicago’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show featuring a full cast of puppets drew huge audiences. Thomas had been a fixture in the Chicago puppetry community for three decades, and he founded his own puppetry company, Blair Thomas & Co. in 2002. With the Chicago Puppet Fest, Thomas said he hoped to capture the atmosphere of the Chicago International Theater Festival, which began in 1988 and ended in 1998. According to Thomas, it “changed the face of Chicago theater.”

Blair Thomas founded the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.
The Festival’s founder, Blair Thomas, hoped it would give puppetry communities a chance to explore and sample each other’s work. PHOTO: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

Similarly, Thomas hoped the festival’s various performances and symposiums would expand the horizons of not just the audience, but also the puppeteers, themselves.

“There’s a language of the puppet that is the connection from shadow puppetry to performance with a mask to traditional hand puppetry. The language is reliant on objects,” Thomas said. “It’s an object-centered world rather than a human-centered world.”

In Nasty, Brutish and Short’s production, those objects included extra limbs for the puppeteers, projected images and screens lit from behind to create shadows. Performers not only controlled their puppets, but they also interacted with them as actors. It was far from children’s puppet theater, and definitely a far cry from the Muppets. But, for Oleon, the techniques are nothing new.

“It’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s been the same thing since forever, which is exciting because it’s such a relatively small thing. When people discover it, it feels like they’re discovering something completely new.”

The festival ran from Jan. 14-25 and featured nearly 50 performances across Chicago.

Photo at Top: In a scene from A Puppet Cabaret, screens are used alongside human actors and puppets. (PHOTO: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.)