Heavenly hives, besties, and battlefields: Summer Sizzle Reel
Updated: Feb 27
Summer might be over soon, but it's not done yet! Our calendar has been full and we intend to go out with a bang. Peruse our latest adventures as we close out a shocking, thrilling season.
In The Recommendation, written by Jonathan Wilson and directed by Jonathan Caren, there’s promise of an intense actor triangle and countless drinks on tap (sake, soda, and Jell-O shots to name a few). Its set up is disguised as a simple power struggle between old, college friends but its depth reveals much more than you bargained for. You might want to hold onto that complimentary moist towelette to relieve your furrowed expression.
The show comes to you as soon as you enter the lobby. Early attendance is crucial as you don’t want to miss out on the details that make this experience worthwhile. The Alien Trash Man serves as a drink special which won’t sink in until after the performance; and while you’re sipping away pay attention to the projected screen above the bar. Facts are interspersed regarding students of color and low-income backgrounds such as there are twenty-three times more high-income students than low-income students who attend Harvard. Pre-show music curated by Tony Bruno sets the vibe appropriately of 2000s pop, rock, and rap hits (if you want even more of a treat make sure to use the bathroom during intermission and your ears will thank you). Before you can examine the admissions letter you’ve been handed, two of your fellow classmates are ready to make your acquaintance.
Iskinder and Aaron’s introductions say everything about them. Michael Aaron Pogue presents Iskinder as well groomed, poised, precise with how he presents himself. Aaron (Julian Hester) on the other hand is brash, flirting with you one minute, and throwing his used towel directly in your face the next having always and continuing to get by on his innate charm and good looks. An established unlikely friendship and growingly concerning dynamic previews this two and a half hour guided experience as stressful, plausible, and puzzling of the message the show aims to leave audiences with and who benefits from attending.
Staff members guide you through the years of Iskinder and Aaron’s friendship at their college dorm, Aaron’s Hollywood producer boss’ mansion, a prison, and a sauna. Both men’s paths cross with Brian Keys, doubling as Iskinder’s father and predominantly as Dwight; who causes a major rift in the duo’s splintering, surface level dynamic. His presence awakens the two to recognize the issues of race, class, and ethics they each consciously choose to ignore in the name of friendship. Keys does a phenomenal job with the material he’s given walking the tense line of playing into the stereotypes Aaron projects onto him for comedic effect (and later for deeper reasons) versus his true essence that’s riddled in insecurity and fear he won’t make a name for himself. He’s sympathetic and earnest with his vulnerability slowly revealed in brief moments like after mentioning to Aaron a film idea he matter of factly says, “You can steal it…It’s what y’all do.”
The Recommendation is billed as an intricate, live action drama, but carries a surprising amount of weight in its examination and commentary on prison, the criminal justice system, and modern race relations. It forces you to reconcile with your preconceptions and beliefs whether sitting inches away from a prisoner in his cell or the poster child for cis, white, male, All-American privilege who slips out of those bars like a magician’s act. This acting trifecta allows each to showcase their talents blurring the lines between concrete and complicated.
This blurriness is further reflected in WCP’s decision making process. How effective can this show that tackles how issues of race, economics, and power are connected be when only some can afford a ticket? Accessibility in terms of physical seating is highly attentive and rush ticketing is a nice incentive, but the potential for more diverse audiences falls short making the show’s overall efforts feel half earned. When looking around at the audience and viewing within the context of the show, you can’t help but wonder if catering to a select audience is intentional. The Recommendation can only reach so far in its potential with its current execution of educating a certain group of people on issues of race and privilege (if that’s even their true intent). Iskinder at one point asks Aaron, “Does buying the black guy a new suit make you feel better?” Similar questions are left hanging in the air in WCP’s reasoning to produce this piece.
The Fly Honeys
Pictured above and below: The Fly Honey ensemble. Photos by Anjali Pinto.
Imagine walking through the doors of a space that has the atmosphere of a sold out concert featuring all your favorite headliners, cascaded from top to bottom as the crème de la crème club for late night entertainment, with the pulsating, wired energy of a wrestling match. This is the closest description that can be ascribed to witnessing the heavenly likeness of The Fly Honeys. The Den Theatre has never felt less like its namesake, and instead manages to carve out a punk, queertastic hole in the wall extravaganza. This makes it one of the hottest tickets in town and standing room is the way to go.
Entering its tenth incarnation, The Fly Honeys have buzzed their wings, bared their beautiful skin, and shaken audiences to their core as Chicago's wettest, dirtiest, delicious dream. Created/directed by Erin Kilmurray, the show is a loud, proud celebration that uplifts women, transgender, queer, non-binary, and people of color. It brings comedy, music (with a space illuminating, live band), and most fiercely---dance, choreographed by the wickedly talented Kilmurray, Alyssa Gegory, and Kasey Alfonso. To further uphold this vision, proceeds from ticket sales benefit UltraViolet, an incredible organization that unites similar voices to fight for political reform against patriarchy. It takes a village to build this hive and its presence grows nightly welcoming artists (some for only one night) and audiences into its bright, electrifying hub.
With applause that is deafening before its opening number, The Fly Honeys' dedicated following and equally devoted cast speaks volumes greater than this critic could ever unload. At one point when taking notes I just wrote, "Heaven(?)" In the midst of clapping till your hands hurt, dancing because it would be offensive to do otherwise, and yelling various phrases of empowerment, it's impossible to resist this sensual, time warping euphoria. The show doesn't "officially" kick off till about a half and hour in when hosts Mary Williamson, Molly Brennan and Shannon Matesky (a sensational stand in for Sydney Charles the evening I attended) lay down some beautifully dictated boundaries. Williamson and Matesky also crafted the script which is modeled like any good strip tease----a promise of pleasure with a pay off that puts your nerves at ease.
Before anyone can truly drop it like it's hot, the trifecta ensures this space is safe for performers and audiences stressing consent goes both ways when interacting with one another. Pronouns are rejoiced including a fantastic example from an audience member who stated theirs as, "that bitch". Phones are encouraged to use with respect granted to not posting images of fully nude performers. And us baby birds are required to celebrate ourselves as much as the performers as this show is for, "everybody no matter what your body." Audiences can enter and reenter as needed, including paying a visit to the gender neutral bathrooms which should be offered at The Den year round.
The lineup changes every weekend with answers to prayers you didn't know you needed. It may include singing vaginas, cake grinding, paying dues to Lizzo and Janelle Monae obviously, and aspirational fashion lewks like a Ms. Daddy cap and black, laced tights with cowboy boots. There's also some things you'd expect, but always welcome. Glitter! Fans! Tarps! Whichever night you attend, The Fly Honeys spread honey sweet kinship and thunderous talent that allows for the freedom to laugh, live, and love without shame. It's a dance party you'll forever want to live in and there's no better way to go out this summer than with a salacious sting.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Red Tape Theatre offers up a surprising summer closer in this co-production with Greenhouse Theatre Center and the University of Toledo. Based on the apparently beloved novel with the older crowd from Erich Maria Remarque, Matt Foss adapts and directs this tale that depicts the brutal, isolating effects of war. Away from their home space of The Ready and residing temporarily at the Greenhouse, results in some benefits and inevitable losses from such placement.
Receiving main stage treatment at Greenhouse offers a tremendous resource for RTT to maximize their free theatre movement mission. A larger space means more seats which allows for new audiences and to expand from Lincoln Square into Lincoln Park and beyond. Yet in this critic's opinion, part of what makes RTT so special is their ability to create intimate, and at times veering into immersive, unforgettable experiences. Sadly, that loss is greatly felt while watching AQOTWF. I couldn't help but imagine what it would have been like to experience this production inches away from a soldier or nurse, feeling the pressure and labor intensified. Then again, there would have been less pianos and it was glorious to witness their utilization in the action with a mesmerizing set from Nick Schwartz.
Schwartz's magnificent set and Leah Urzendowski's choreography transform what could have been a dusty, boring adaptation into a fascinating exploration of how violence and masculinity take a toll on the mind and body. These efforts are fantastically aided by Catherine Miller's casting and a soundscape that mixes modern beats with timeless, lyrical melodies by Dan Poppen. Red Tape reassures us that while this story is deeply rooted in the past, contemporary modes of storytelling can salvage material that otherwise (especially in the hands of another theatre company) would be unwatchable.
Despite some new digs, Red Tape Theatre continues to prove consistent across its various, individualized productions. This first and foremost comes from their commitment to accessibility onstage and off. Second, their portrayal of violence onstage is creative and engaging but never exploitative, guided masterfully here by Urzendowski. And finally, they manage to gather large, undeniably talented ensembles that feature some of the strongest performances of the year. Elena Victoria Feliz plays narrator Paul with a numbness so poised and unwavering it ensnares you in a trance. Feliz's commanding presence, the ensemble's poetic movements, and matching music with intention produce moments of greatness from a story that requires innovation to be enjoyable.
Miss out on part one? Read here.