The Don't-Miss List: Merce Cunningham's last hurrah
The weather outside may be frightful (or not--there's no knowing) but onstage at the Pritzker Pavilion you can be snug and warm while enjoying concert readings of shows by Chicago companies. It's called the In The Works Theater Lab, and it will open tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 p.m. with Lifeline Theatre's adaptation of Hunger. This world premiere, which will receive a full production at Lifeline in February, is set during the World War II siege of Leningrad, a nearly unbelievable true story of people defying starvation to defend their country and future. The cast includes Lifeline stalwarts Peter Greenberg and Jenifer Tyler, who should be seen whenever and wherever they appear. Tickets for the reading, which runs only through Saturday, are $15; call 312-742-TIXS or go to millenniumpark.org.
And if you'd like to do a little defending of country and future yourself, consider spending part of November 19 or 20 at the benefit for the Occupy Chicago Legal Defense Fund. Beginning at 10 p.m. on Saturday and at 6 p.m. on Sunday at Prop Thtr, 3502 North Elston, the benefit includes a mix of speeches, music, performance art and a 45 minute work in progress documentary about the Occupy Chicago movement. (Saturday night features This American Life contributor and Curious Theatre Branch resident genius Beau O'Reilly, among others.) Pay what you can to attend, and/or purchase donated artwork to support the movement and its lawyers, who (as New York has just demonstrated) have their hands full keeping speech free.
As everyone knows (but Zac Whittenburg discusses with enviable skill), Dance Chicago is a complete crapshoot. Now in the third week of its 17th season, and featuring some 250 companies or choreographers, the fest this weekend consists of two “Urban Movement” shows. Translation: “flat-out fun hip-hop acts.” This is the first year there’ve been two such programs—other years there’s been one, always sold out. Dance fans have an opportunity to see companies like M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Culture Shock Chicago, RFSF (“Raw Funky Street Flav,” which—full disclosure—is the creation of my hip-hop teacher, Viola Elkins) and literally dozens more Friday and Saturday at Stage 773.
And for those in a genuflecting mood: this weekend the Merce Cunningham Dance Company makes its final appearance in Chicago—one of its last anywhere. Merce died in 2009, and when the company’s “Legacy Tour” concludes on NYE 2011 in NYC, the troupe will be disbanded. Those who’ve never seen his work and are curious, take note: Merce didn’t act like an icon. His sense of humor courses through the dances being performed here, three on Friday and one (Roaratorio—I love it) on Saturday at the Harris.
My other fabulous dance teacher, Idy Ciss of Muntu Dance Theatre, is also performing this weekend, Friday night at the OTSFM with Erika Ochoa of Baladina Dance. Kay Fetch (no, I don’t know what it means) reportedly takes viewers on a music-and-dance trip to West and North Africa.
Distinguished actor William J. Norris at last is ancient and decrepit enough to play the roles he’s been playing for the last 30 years, among them Davies, the bullied title character of The Caretaker, an early masterpiece by Harold Pinter now at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. Norris may be a doddering old bag of bones who can barely walk or talk, but audiences love him, so whatcha’ gonna’ do? Director Ron OJ Parson has been smart enough to surround Norris with two excellent stout lads who can hold him up through Pinter’s famous Comedy of Menace, Anish Jethmalani and Kareem Bandealy. The Caretaker continues at the Writers’ Theatre Books-on-Vernon location through next March 25, by which time Norris—known for his indelible performances as Scrooge at the Goodman Theatre—will be about 200 years old.
Only 14 months and $16 million from groundbreaking ceremonies—which is fast and relatively cheap by Chicago construction standards—the Black Ensemble Cultural Center is open for business at 4450 N. Clark Street in Uptown. Consisting of one brand-new building and one retrofit building, the Center includes two theaters, classrooms, offices and gallery space. It’s the fulfillment of a dream for Black Ensemble executive director Jackie Taylor, who founded the company 35 years ago. To open the Center, Taylor has mounted a new production (with a new, dynamic star) of a decade-old Black Ensemble hit, My Heart is Crying: The Jackie Wilson Story, a musical biography, which runs through Jan. 8.