Showing posts with label Guest Critic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Guest Critic. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

REVIEW: “Il Trovatore” at Lyric Opera Through December 9, 2018

ChiIL Live Shows on our radar

by Giuseppe Verdi
Sung in Italian with projected English translations

Approximate Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

Verdi’s IL TROVATORE Now Playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago November 17-30 & December 3-9

Review of Opera “Il Trovatore” at Lyric
By Catherine Hellmann, guest critic

Everyone remembers their first, not the opera. The adorable father-daughter duo seated next to us said her first opera was in Detroit. Her dad deliberately took her to see Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the Lincoln seats since it is such a classic and so lovely. Dad saw his first opera at the Lyric, being a Chicago native. His was “Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte.” Mine was at Cincinnati’s gorgeous Music Hall, courtesy of my father, a classical music fan. “The Student Prince” by Sigmund Romberg.

And so I was honored to bring my daughter to her first opera at the stunning Art Deco Lyric Opera House on Saturday night for Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” I assured her that she could read the English subtitles above the stage since the opera would be sung in its native Italian.

“What’s it about?” she asked me on our way to Wacker Drive. “Not sure exactly,” I answered, “but someone will die in song.”  

Getting interested in an opera is kind of like what a professor told me about reading Grimm’s fairy tales: you have to suspend belief and just go with it. If a character has a magic mirror in a fairy tale, it makes no sense logically; just don’t question it, and enjoy the ridiculous premise. So if a mother in “Il Trovatore” gets confused at a bonfire and accidentally throws her own baby into the flames instead of the boy she is supposed to be avenging, oy, just accept this plot development.

As a former Lyric subscriber and opera major in college, I just expect this lack of logic. But to teen-ager Camelia, the plot was insanity.

“Okay, so the first half was great like, wow, but the second half, what even was that. You’ve got this woman for 30 minutes talking about how much she loves this guy, like okay, we get it, you miss him, and then she gives herself up for him, which is so sweet. AND THEN FOR 30 MORE MINUTES THIS DUDE IS SO UNGRATEFUL! Like, ‘I hate you! You’re giving your love to someone else!’ Dude. She’s giving up her virtue and her life for you and all you can do is complain. You literally throw away the key, why didn’t you release your mom. AND THEN IN THE LAST TWO SECONDS, she dies, he dies, and ‘Hey, surprise! You just killed your brother.’ ‘What? NOOOOOOOOOOO!’ And scene. Like, um okay, bitch.” - ------Camelia         

The Anvil Chorus from IL TROVATORE at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 
Photo by Michael Brosilow

While the plot is typical opera-crazy fare, the singing and performances are top-notch in this hot mess of a story. Tamara Wilson in the lead role of Leonora was divine. What a voice! Simply mesmerizing. Obviously, her acting was also effective, as Camelia was so upset by her generosity to the ungrateful Manrico, her lover.

Jamie Barton amazed us with her incredible range as Azucena, the daughter of the accused witch and adoptive mother of Manrico. Artur Rucinski was also noteworthy as the calculating, but sexy, Count di Luna with his marvelous voice and acting.

The Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus was fantastic, especially in the very-recognizable “anvil song” set in the Gypsy camp. (As an added bonus, some of the workers were swinging their anvils without any shirts on. Oh, I long for those days of Samuel Ramey playing a half-naked devil…)

The set design was cool, but at one point, the turntable spun slowly to switch scenes in a drawn-out silence. It seemed weird to not have any music or singing at that part. It is a credit to opera audiences that there was complete silence during this awkward scene change.

But that is a quibble. It is always a treat to see the Lyric in its fabulous home. The downstairs area has great framed photographs of past productions lining its walls as well as costume ball gowns. Coffee is available for sale throughout the lobby areas, if a three-hour opera tests your attention span.               

Catherine Hellmann is a teacher, writer, and theater junkie. She has tried to inspire urban and rural middle schoolers for over twenty years. A mother of three, she is thrilled to once again claim Chicago as home.  

by Giuseppe Verdi
Sung in Italian with projected English translations


And what wonderful characters—bold and courageous Manrico, his beloved Leonora, the vengeful Count di Luna, and the wild, obsessed gypsy Azucena. Each has thrilling music to sing as the drama unfolds in the smoldering atmosphere of darkly mysterious 15th-century Spain. The “Anvil Chorus,” Leonora’s “Miserere,” Manrico’s stirring call to arms—these are just a few of the fabulous highlights that make Il trovatore a feast of sumptuous singing.


A coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Metropolitan Opera, and the San Francisco Opera Association.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Verdi’s Il trovatore opens Saturday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. There are seven performances November 17 - December 9 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago. Tickets start at $39 and are available now at or at 312-827-5600.

Lyric’s Il trovatore boasts a terrific international cast of new and returning artists to play the vividly drawn characters in this hot-blooded tale of love, jealousy, and mistaken identity, and terrible retribution.

American tenor Russell Thomas is Manrico, the titular troubadour, while American soprano Tamara Wilson (Lyric debut) plays his love, Leonora. American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton portrays the tortured gypsy Azucena, and Polish baritone Artur Ruciński (Lyric debut) sings the dastardly Count di Luna, who covets Leonora’s affections. Serving as narrator for this twisted tale is Ferrando, sung by Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini (Lyric debut). 

Conductor Marco Armiliato and the Lyric Opera Orchestra bring terrific collective experience to the thrilling blood-and-thunder score. The original director of this production, Sir David McVicar, has created a visually powerful production set in tumultuous early 19th-century Spain. Roy Rallo (Lyric debut) directs the revival, with set designs by Charles Edwards, costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, original lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, and revival lighting design by Chris Maravich.

The Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by Lyric’s chorus master Michael Black, sings one of the most famous pieces of music, the stirring and hearty “Anvil Chorus.”

Performance dates for Il trovatore are Nov. 17, 21, 25, 30 and Dec. 3, 6, and 9. Performance times vary. For tickets and information call (312) 827-5600 or go to

Thursday, July 19, 2018

REVIEW: Victims of Duty at A Red Orchid Theatre With Michael Shannon

Chi IL Live Shows On Our Radar:
Victims of Duty by Eugene Ionesco 
at A Red Orchid Theatre
1531 N. Wells Ave. Chicago, IL 60610

By Catherine Hellmann, Guest Critic

Remember the old commercial for grape jelly that suggested: “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good”? Well, I was reminded of this when watching Victims of Duty, “With a name like Ionesco, it’s got to be weird.” Absurdist theater makes me whimper, and to admit such a thing is like saying the Emperor has no clothes, or I am tragically unhip (which my teens can attest to anyway…)

Karen Aldridge (Madeleine), Michael Shannon (The Detective), and Guy Van Swearingen (Choubert)


Ionesco’s play begins with a quiet couple onstage. The husband, Choubert, is reading the newspaper; the wife, Madeleine, is sewing. They chat about dog poop on the sidewalk in the neighborhood, how the government is encouraging citizens to be detached to conquer problems, and opinions on theater. The husband, played by Ensemble Member Guy Van Swearingen, bemoans how nothing new ever happens in theater; everything is a “thriller.” (Cue: a visitor who will shake things up in this tranquil home.) Oh, and there is a clawfoot bathtub, half-filled with water, between them. Oh, and a now-famous movie star is in the production, which is really why anyone, myself included, wants to see it.

Aldridge, Van Swearingen, Shannon

With Michael Shannon from the Academy-Award winning movie The Shape of Water in the role of The Detective, A Red Orchid Theatre has a hit show that sold out its entire run in minutes. Both Van Swearingen and Shannon were in the original production at A Red Orchid in 1995, along with director Shira Piven; ticket sales then involved some begging. The space is small and intimate, which adds to the thrill of being there. A Red Orchid could realistically sell “safe” versus “unsafe seats” if the audience doesn’t mind getting wet from the pool of water onstage which the actors swish around in. (I wondered if the actors have an alternate set of clothing for their second show later that evening.)

Rich Cotovsky (Nicolas D’eu)



The Detective is searching for “Mallot with a t” who lived in their building. The sedate couple is intrigued and invite the seemingly timid but soon-aggressive Detective into their home. The biggest laugh came when the couple referred to the “sweet face” of the Detective. His interrogation involves force-feeding Choubert bread and having him submerge in the pool, as our memories can be fleeting like liquid. (I had sympathy for the stage crew and the splashing they will have to clean up after every performance.)

Karen Aldridge is wonderful as the wife who is initially darning socks mildly, then playfully changes into a sexy dress to entice the Detective. When he asks her for a cup of coffee, she willingly obliges by frantically bringing out cup after cup after cup, lining them up along the edge of the stage. (Reminding me of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” where T.S. Elliott observed: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”)

Mierka Gierten (The Lady)

Van Swearingen, Gierten,

In a time when the real/fake news is mind-boggling and our commander-in-chief is a former reality-tv star-Narcissist, do we need entertainment to be more absurd? As Ms. Piven writes in her Director’s Notes: “Now there is also a social/political resonance that we can’t escape, as much as we might want to. Themes of torture, blind compliance to authority and the absurdity (not to mention the insidiousness) of every aspect of our current political morass” was present in their rehearsals.

AldridgeVan Swearingen

Shannon, Van Swearingen, Aldridge

Perhaps Ionesco was warning us to be citizens who are not detached by society’s problems, for innocent bystanders who are unaffected by turmoil around them are not helping.

Victims of Duty is running through August 5. Good luck scoring a ticket.

Van Swearingen, Aldridge

Shannon, GiertenVan Swearingen, Aldridge

Check for last minute tickets, as some do become available. If you miss those, show up in person and try their standby lines. They are sometimes even able to get everyone in!

Ensemble Members Michael Shannon (The Detective) and Guy Van Swearingen (Choubert), as well as Karen Aldridge (Madeleine), Rich Cotovsky (Nicolas D’eu), and Ensemble Member Mierka Gierten (The Lady).

Title: Victims of Duty
Written By: Eugene Ionesco
Directed by: Shira Piven

Creative Team: Danila Korogodsky (Production Design), Ensemble Member Mike Durst (Lighting Design), and Brando Triantafilou (Sound Design)

Regular Run: July 17 – August 5, 2018
Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, July 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, July 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 21 at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 22 at 3:00 p.m.
Wednesday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, July 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 28 at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 29 at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, August 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, August 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, August 4 at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, August 5 at 3:00 p.m.

Schedule: Tuesdays: 7:30 p.m. (July 17 & 31)
Wednesdays: 7:30 p.m. (July 11 & 25)
Thursdays: 7:30 p.m. (July 12, 19 & 26)
Fridays: 7:30 p.m. (July 13 & 20 and August 3)
Saturdays: 3:00 p.m. (July 21 & 28 and August 4)
and 7:30p.m. (July 14, 21 & 28 and August 4) 
Sundays: 3:00 p.m. (July 22, 29 and August 5)

Location: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Ave.
Tickets: $50

Box Office:Located at 1531 N. Wells Ave, Chicago, (312) 943-8722; or online 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

REVIEW: Tiresias Was a Weatherman by the Organic Theater Company at the Greenhouse Theater Through July 8, 2018

Chi IL Live Shows On Our Radar:
Tiresias Was a Weatherman 
by the Organic Theater Company 
at the Greenhouse Theater 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue 

By Catherine Hellmann, Guest Critic

According to the press release, “Jaime Mire’s new comedy
Tiresias Was a Weatherman deals with timely issues of today such as mental health, pharmaceuticals, predatory media, and extreme weather, in a world where a minimal scientific alteration to your brain could potentially save both you and the world.  Or at least that’s what they say…” 

John Arthur Lewis (Troy), Adam Zaininger (Sun), Laura Sturm (Joyce), Will Burdin (Wind), Colin Jackson (Thunder), and Joel Moses (Rain) in Organic Theater’s production of Tiresias Was A Weatherman, directed by Josh Anderson, associate director Anna Gelman, May 31 – July 6, 2018. 
All Production Photos by Anna Gelman.

The storyline reminded me of my favorite beach on the East side of Lake Michigan, Pier Cove. There is a pile of rocks along the beach that have inspirational quotes on them. The usual expressions of thanks, blessings, and encouragement are penned on the rocks...but one rock reads: “Take your meds,” which I think is awesome. Then all will be well, right? The emphasis on taking one’s meds is at the forefront of Mire’s play. 

Taylor Raye (Cindy) and John Arthur Lewis (Troy)

The taking of meds from “Crazy Pants Pharmaceuticals” (love that name!) can cause catastrophic meteorological effects, even deadly hurricanes. One of the main characters, a doctor named Troy, lost his only son, Paul, in the last huge storm. Troy, who seems to have no emotions, is later accused of using his dead son for publicity; he even refers to Paul’s autopsy as a “research cadaver.” Ouch. Troy needs a feelings chip...

Annie, Troy’s stepdaughter, is portrayed by Shaina Schrooten, who does a great job as the frustrated, emotionally distraught daughter of Laura Sturm’s Joyce. She misses her brother Paul terribly, and describes to her psychiatrist how losing a sibling is its own category of being orphaned. Like the character of Antigone, she just wishes for her deceased brother to be buried so he can rest in peace. “He deserves a burial,” she insists. Annie has some wonderful lines, like how she doesn’t consider pot to be a med on her health history paperwork---”it’s like toothpaste,” she explains.

John Arthur Lewis (Troy), Nyssa Lowenstein (Charlie), and Laura Sturm (Joyce)

Four actors personify the Sun, Wind, Rain, and Thunder. Some of their dialogue is expressed in rhymes like a Dr. Seuss book which makes their intentions less sinister. “We are the weather. We work well together!” But the plot is confusing. 

Was it just me being un-hip again? So I asked my date what I was missing. His response: “The Weather freaked out when meds weren't taken or taken on time, I think. I interpreted the weather as thought, like side effects ??? Does that make sense?  I say this because the weather was also encouraging Annie, a.k.a. Annabelle, to pop a pill. I wish I could be of more help but that's how I interpreted the weather.” This is one of those shows that you don’t want to take your parents to because if we were lost, mom and dad are really going to be clueless. 

Sara Copeland (Izzy) and Shaina Schrooten (Annabelle)

All of the actors are well-intentioned and do a commendable job. I was especially impressed with three actresses who are also in The Revolutionists,
which I reviewed last week. The two plays are showing in repertory at Greenhouse until July 8. Sara Copland, Laura Sturm, and Taylor Raye appear in both productions, which is admirable. As my amusing companion noted: ”How do they do that? I would be fucking up and saying my lines from the wrong play.” Taylor Raye is funny, offering some of the only humor in the show as a talk-show host who is a bit too admiring of her guest, the doctor.

John Arthur Lewis plays the doctor who has developed an experimental chip that can be implanted in a person’s brain to suppress and control emotions. Referred to as a “remote controlled brain inhibitor,” the talk show host is thrilled with the possibilities, but the doctor wants its uses to be kept in check. Troy must be his own test subject---he is so deadpan about everything.

loved the costumes, which are all black and grey for the human characters, but bright colors for the Weathermen. The Weathermen are a talented group who also sing, sometimes in harmony. They had a clever list of medications: “fuck it all, Adderall,” and “closure is overrated, just get medicated.” 

Shaina Schrooten (Annabelle) and Adam Zaininger (Sun)

The play ends with Annie’s birthday. As she observes, birthdays “make us look at ourselves---or we are just furniture.”

This show runs in repertory with The Revolutionists (check out my review here) through July 8. 

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