Saturday, October 29, 2016

Following Janus Theatre Company "Into the Dark"

Neither the sports fans, the casual diners, nor even the police knew what was happening below street level Friday night in downtown Elgin. Groups of ten or twelve mystified souls descended dark stairways into unfurnished rooms, to hear tell of fortunes, madness and murders.

That was the premise of "Tales from Poe II: Into the Dark," the latest program of Walkabout: Theater on your Feet, presented by Janus Theatre Company. In each of four acts, a single actor brought to life selected writings by Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer best known for his preoccupation with death.

In the basement under the Blue Box Cafe, Kelly Bolton channeled a clairvoyant from a candle lit Romantic era parlor, paired with the words to the poem "Spirits of the Dead." In another room below Salon Couture, Joe Cattoggio introduced us to the first of three deranged characters with a tense reading of Egaeus, suitor to Poe's Berenice.

From a cell beneath Rediscover Records, Paula Smiech made us believe that murder can be deliberate and rational, though The Tell Tale Heart foiled the perfect crime. And like the opening scene of a Vincent Price film, a jovial Thomas Squires greeted visitors in Side Street Studio Arts Gallery with a glass of wine before ushering them into his cellar by torch light to see The Cask of Amontillado. We didn't expect the tour to end with the reenactment of a murder.

Scenes from The Cask of Amontillado played by Thomas Squires.

Poe's detailed psychological characterizations lend themselves to live delivery, but they are much more than narration — the words, structure and style of the language are essential to each character's personality, defining them more by how they think, than by what they say and do.

Yet we recognize repetition, abrupt changes in mood, dynamics and speech tempo as signs of madness, which Smiech employed to great effect in Tell Tale Heart. And inappropriate laughter seemed perfectly appropriate in Squires' animated protrayal of the murderous Montresor, expanded by skillful improvisations and live action.

As the Father of the Short Story, the power of Poe's writing is in the impressions it forms in readers' minds, and staging this material as a live production is not without risk. But these fine performances directed by Janus' Sean Hargadon prove that in the right hands, Poe's stories can be as effective in an underground theater as they are on a printed page.

The tours continue Saturday Oct. 29th at 2pm and 7pm, and Sunday at 2pm. For complete details, go to

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The St. Charles Singers Continue "The Mozart Journey"

There simply aren't many concerts of young W.A. Mozart's early sacred choral works. It's not because the music isn't beautiful or important (it is). Perhaps it's because only a choir with the depth and quality of the St. Charles Singers could develop this lesser known repertoire into a multi-season program that may very well be unique in the world.

Performances of October 15 and 16, 2016 were the eleventh in a series of seventeen concerts entitled "The Mozart Journey: Mannheim and Beyond," whose goal is to present the complete known collection of Mozart's sacred choral compositions. Such a project may never have been undertaken before.

Seats were scarce in St. Mary's Church in Elgin on Sunday afternoon, even for the 28-piece Metropolis Chamber Orchestra of Chicago, which was spread across the transept, two rows deep and twelve rows wide. The choir occupied the remaining area in front of the chancel and the vocal soloists sang from the first row of pews.

But every seat in the church became the perfect seat once the music started. St. Mary's sounded like a cathedral and the ensemble seemed to double in volume under the lofty ceilings. It's a resounding yet forgiving space that favors intonation at the cost of some fine details, but the exquisite experience of this music was worth it.

Photo courtesy St. Charles Singers.

The program consisted of the obscure Kyrie in E flat K 322 (1778), the nine-part Litaniae de venerabili altaris Sacramento K 243 (1776), and the seven-movement Missa Solemnis in C K 337 (1780), all written while Mozart was in his early twenties, before he moved to Vienna. The orchestra was showcased in Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1759) by Joseph Haydn, Mozart's contemporary, idol and friend.

Perhaps less familiar to Elgin audiences, the 32-voice St. Charles Singers are a professional choir made up of accomplished career musicians. And their skill was evident in graceful control over dynamic contrasts and counterpoint that needed no prompting. Each tightly synchronized section shaped their phrases to the same arc and length, and the choir's tone was gorgeously blended over long vowels — although without overenunciating, the all-Latin text was hard to follow at times.

The orchestra was attentive and entirely on point throughout, never outsung by the choir except in a few passages through opposite registers. Subtler details like violin pizzicato were more felt than heard in the volume of sound, and the more transparent moments of orchestration made us want to hear more from the portative organ and flute. 

Two solo voices bright enough to outshine the chorale belonged to outstanding sopranos Meredith Du Bon and Jennifer Gingrich, whose expressive range boasted precise entrances, regal fortes, and courageous flights of operatic coloratura dipping below the staff.

The preparation of this ensemble spoke for itself and was a credit to unassuming Maestro Jeffrey Hunt, founder and Music Director of the St. Charles Singers. His tempos were reverent, and his baton was free of all conceit as he ushered choir and orchestra through 75 minutes of music with concise cues and poetic timing.

If this performance was any measure, we think the St. Charles Singers have a sound much larger than any chamber, and a talent much bigger than their name. Listen for yourself at their upcoming "Candlelight Carols" concerts, December 2-4, 2016.  Learn more at

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Vision for Media in an Arts-friendly Community

Communication creates community. The exchange of ideas by speakers and listeners, or writers and readers, draws people together around a common task of understanding each other using the shared conventions of language.

For community to grow beyond two or three or ten or twenty, the community needs a medium that communicates across larger spans of time and space. For an arts-friendly community to flourish, it needs an arts-friendly medium. This is one vision for such a medium.
The medium is place-based, because the arts are place-based. Live performances, visual art exhibits, and film screenings exist in a shared physical experience space. 
The medium is physical and direct, because this connects it to specific places where the community gathers. Media such as bulletin boards, posters and handbills are physical and direct because they exist as print.
The medium is free, because communication flows best when it is unimpeded. 
The medium itself exemplifies beauty, freedom of expression, creativity, kindness, technical excellence and diversity because those are the ways in which the arts imitate some of the finest qualities of humanity.
The medium is sustainable, because the arts-friendly community benefits from the free flow of information, and comes to rely on it. It remains sustainable for as long as it carries content of value, and enables exchange of value among the members of the community: its creators, producers and consumers.
This vision describes a beautiful, free, ad-supported print medium, established in a specific place and serving a community which values artistic expression. Yet there are better and worse ways to realize such a vision.
The medium should support a free ideas marketplace. Artists seeking to share their expression with an audience need a platform for introducing their work and announcing their events. In an arts-friendly community, these announcements are considered intrinsically valuable. As long as the ideas marketplace is not primarily revenue-based, this communication should be free. 
The medium should support a small business marketplace. Revenue-based organizations — profit-seeking or otherwise — need an affordable channel for reaching customers, patrons and prospects. These organizations should share the cost of the medium among themselves because they derive the most immediate value from their own commercial messages. 
The medium should support public communication. Any community has a vested interest in a flow of information from their local, publicly-funded government. Public messaging, especially arts-based, should be welcomed in the medium on a cost-sharing basis whenever that messaging is paid for with budgeted public funds.
The medium should offer something to those outside of arts circles. Visibility is essential to all purposes of the medium, and culturally-relevant content of general interest will attract a diverse readership.
While this vision for a free medium serving an arts-friendly community promotes cooperation and participation, the practical reality is that direct ownership and control of the medium is likely to be concentrated in the hands of a few. They will hold a power over the medium that could easily by misused.
The medium should not become a vehicle for its own artistic expression. Once a publisher begins using the medium itself as an art product, it becomes overtly self-serving and may violate the trust placed in it by the community.
The medium should not become a vehicle for its own political expression. By using the medium as a megaphone for any one viewpoint in a controversy weakens the community by alienating part of it, and thus betrays the purpose of the medium.
The medium should not become overly commercialized. The presence of paid advertising which is not locally place-based (e.g. national brand advertising) primarily supports the medium and not the community. Commercial messaging disguised as a free flow of information will pollute the ideas marketplace and steal from the small business marketplace. Noisy, cluttered or overexposed advertisements detract from the beauty of the medium. Any and all forms of "selling out" are potentially harmful.
Arts-friendly print media are found all over the world in all styles and formats. Some attempt to combine arts-specific content with news, opinion, recurring columns, classified ads and personal ads. The vision articulated here does not preclude any of these kinds of content, but many of them add cost to the medium, and don't effectively contribute to the arts-centric community discourse.

Can an arts-friendly community grow and thrive without its own place-based direct physical medium? Probably, but the presence of the medium performs a vital function. It serves as primary evidence that an arts movement exists in the community; it documents the community's values; and it invites others into the community through its free and generous transfer of ideas.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Group Project at Elgin Fringe Festival

The art of poetic language and the power of the spoken word are a highly compelling opening to "Three Daughters Who are Not Daughters" by The Group Project. A woman in a chair, covered from the neck down by a denim quilt, delivers a vivid collage of voices without any movement, except for the rhythms of an on-stage drummer.

Group Project at Elgin Fringe Festival
In the second of three vignettes, a prisoner is visited by the spirit of her unborn daughter, carried by the warrior spirit of a woman lost during childbirth. The dialogue turns to a dance, accompanied by the exotic language of a solo flute.

Part three is a tense, multimedia mother-daughter drama surrounded by a four-piece band culminating in an all-female chorus, where it ends just before becoming too cluttered with material.

Outstanding individual performances by Samantha Hurwitz, Soli Santos and Sandra Fonseca, and live music by the Steins carry this study of women's experience of loss in a progressively less abstract sequence. It's a great addition to a fringe festival program in the multidisciplinary/experimental category that deserves more participation.

This piece is definitely worth your attention Sunday, Sept. 18th at 3pm at Next Door Theater.

Robert Frosty Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival

Big targets are the easiest to hit, but enough well-placed shots can bring down a giant. That's the idea behind the sword-swinging political send-up entitled "Capitalism: A Fighting Cabaret Musical" by Robert Frosty Theatre Company.

Robert Frosty Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival.

In a rapid-fire series of sketches, we see snapshots of capitalist atrocities from the past, present and future, accompanied two Dickens-era American businessmen. Wherever something can be bought and sold for a profit, the Capitalists move in and take control. Mineral rights, the media, pharmaceuticals, child labor, real estate and the democratic process are but a few of the assets they acquire with contracts, laws and paper money.

Caricatures of political figures, CEOs, Mark Twain, the Pope and even Jesus put a face on the forces of good and evil as Frosty sees them, and when you least expect it, a band of bloodthirsty Vikings enters and slaughters the cast.

It's a fully transparent theatrical agenda overflowing with zany humor, wigs, musical interludes and lots and lots of swords, leading to the unexpected conclusion that perhaps the only thing guaranteed to satisfy any group of people is random, senseless acts of violence.

This performance repeats Sunday, Sept. 18th at 1:30 pm and 4:30 pm.

Olive Juice Theatre at Elgin Fringe Festival

The finest show at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival might be the work of Olive Juice Theatre, whose musical production of "Jason and the Argonauts" excels on every level.

The original script and score by Ralph Krumins is superb, complete with memorable refrains, sparkling solos, part harmony, and dialogue that offers something for kids (its intended audience) and adults. Keeping an all-ages audience giggling for fifty straight minutes is not easy.

Keegan Cole, Hunter Nelson and Olivia Cabrera of Olive Juice Theatre.

The energetic cast of Hunter Nelson, Olivia Cabrera and Keegan Cole play more than twenty highly-animated roles with fast-paced costume and prop changes and distinct voice characterizations. Their exaggerated deliveries are well directed and rehearsed, and they are hilarious.

But wait, there's more. The Argonauts are child actors pulled from the audience, who join the action and improvise roles directed from the stage, even singing choruses with the ensemble.

It's an incredible success that could easily fall flat in the hands of lesser talent. Don't dismiss this show like a Happy Meal — it's an exuberant, excellent feast for the senses that you won't be embarrassed to love.

The last chance to see this show is Sunday, Sept. 18th at 3 pm.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Elaine Phillips at Elgin Fringe Festival

Elaine Phillips
The brick interior of Imago Creative Studios is a perfect set for stand-up comedy, and you'd think you were in a big city club with Elaine Phillips at the mic. She has all the right credentials: ex-wife, ex-history teacher, and self-described feminazi.

Throughout her set she criss-crosses through any and all dangerous subjects like human trafficking, genocide, abortion, imperialism, political correctness and public toilets. But Phillips can work both sides of the street on these topics, inserting political statements between humorous jabs at people and power structures. And she has no problem sneering at herself.

Though the 10:30 pm time slot might be after Elgin's mental bedtime, the audience giggled through bits on men's grooming, women's bathrooms, ketchup stains and Jewel grocery bags. Yet her show gravitates toward sharp commentary on bigger, tougher subjects that no "mom jeans"comic would even dare to touch.

For a classic urban stand-up experience of intellectual humor with an attitude, check out "Didn't Know I was Dangerous" Saturday, Sept. 17th at 7:30 pm at Imago Studios.

Jeremy Schaefer at Elgin Fringe Festival

The first introductory line from storyteller Jeremy Schaefer reveals he has a grasp of structure and sequence, which is the backbone of any great story.

In his four-part piece that begins and ends in the Arizona desert, Schaefer examines the origins, artificiality and even the merits of the modern institution of marriage, illustrated by scenes from his own personal experience. The material is well-researched, nicely composed, and delivered with superb timing and musicality that color each moment with the right shade of comedy or melancholy.

Jeremy Schaefer performs and Elgin Fringe Festival.

The tempo is fast and word-heavy, with occasional excursions into overthinking, but Schaefer's language is fluent, witty and conversational, with memorable nutshell lines like "I'm a skeptic, not an asshole."

His argument that marriage is not an essential part of love and commitment is summed up in the title, "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?" Pulling references from 90's music, Mormon theology and evolutionary psychology, his analysis is as persuasive as it is amusing.

It's a great story, bro, and he'll tell it again Saturday, Sept. 17th at 1:30 pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at 6 pm.

2 Merry Men at Elgin Fringe Festival

Despite their billing, neither the Smothers Brothers, the Three Stooges, nor a drunken frat party fully captures the flavor of Rob and John as the 2 Merry Men. Picture the absolute bluest possible shade of Monty Python's Flying Circus, performed in renaissance costumes with several cocktails under the belt.

Rob and John can carry a tune and sing decent a cappella harmony, interspersed with raunchy comedic riffs and audience interaction. Nothing was off-limits in this delightfully bawdy romp, not even a gratuitous grope of their crushed velvet tights.

2 Merry Men perform at Elgin Fringe Festival.

From "The Day Pat Murphy Died" and "The Ballad of the Crimson Scourge" to "Good Ship Venus" and "I Like a Moose," a packed house sang along, clapped, screamed profanities and roared with laughter as the lyrics grew more and more obscene. The 2 Merry Men claimed it was the best live audience they've ever had.

If you've ever wanted to hear Andrew Dice Clay's nursery rhymes sung by pirates, you're going to love this show Saturday, Sept. 17th and Noon and 9 pm at Elgin Public House.

Elgin Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival

Three stages of couples' conversation were explored in a series of sketches written by Carl Heitler, and performed by a versatile cast from Elgin Theatre Company, Friday at Imago Creative Studios.

A first date between two mature singles, comfortable with their own identities, highlights the wondrous and comical asymmetry of first impressions. A second vignette portrays a young married couple seeking equilibrium in their relationship by attempting to measure its temperature with a magazine survey.

The final sketch imagines the waiting room where you go after you die, where two strangers try to make sense of their past and present situations. Have a tissue ready when they experience one last chance to say goodbye with the words "Don't forget to write."

The minimally staged three-part suite entitled "Reflections and Perspectives" puts communication front and center but begs the question, "At what point do two reciprocal monologues become a dialogue?"

Performances repeat Saturday, Sept. 17th at 1:30 pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at 3 pm.

Huck Poe at Elgin Fringe Festival

In a closet beneath the stairs at Fringe Central, I meet a smartly-dressed man seated behind a small table. Holding out an origami fortune teller, he asks me to choose the handwritten name of a bodily humor, barely visible in the dim light: Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile, Black Bile. I choose Yellow Bile.

Huck Poe as Diagnostradamus at Elgin Fringe Festival.

The man called "Diagnostradamus" operates the origami fortune teller ten times with his fingers, once for every letter in yellow bile. "Choose a precept of Buddha's Eightfold Path to Arahtship," he says. I choose Right Effort. Beneath its flap of origami: a six.

"Choose a number between 27 and 259," he says.  I choose 856. I choose again: 156. Diagnostradamus produces a paperback book of medicine, describing sicknesses, illnesses and deformities. The sixth disease on page 156 is Hypothyroidism.  As he reads, I feel my energy flagging, my digestion coming to a halt.

From this, Diagnostradaumus divines for me a fortune. "This indicates a lack of vitality, a cessation of growth. You need to break out of your monotony and discover and experience new things."

I thank him without making eye contact and make my way south on Spring Street, with a backpack full of ice beer, rough drafts of performance reviews, a Fringe Festival program and an empty bottle of Aleve. His services were free.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Captain Ambivalent at Elgin Fringe Festival

When your socks are dirty, your bladder is full, and your hot crush is a thousand miles away, who ya gonna call ... Captain Ambivalent?  Maybe.

Captain Ambivalent performs at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival.

"Laundry Night" is the true musical story of Captain Ambivalent's glacial rise from total obscurity to international obscurity. It's a real-life saga punctuated by recurring scenes of unrequited love, noisy neighbors, and a relentless flow of song ideas. Career biography, yes — but this show is all about the music!

You'll sway to the rhythm of "Imaginary Breakfast," rock to the beat of "Laundry Night," and revel in lyrical genius of "Being Direct." You'll dance, you'll cry, you'll laugh and wonder why. 

Captain Ambivalent is a nerd-rock virtuoso on a sparkly gold accordion, as well as an array of toy instruments, augmented by multimedia, multiple costume changes, and a blast from the past animated by forced air.

Don't miss this returning Fringe Fest favorite at Elgin Public House Saturday, Sept. 17th at 6 pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at 4:30 pm.  Go to for more info.

William Pack at the Elgin Fringe Festival

In a show entitled "A Life Among Secrets," illusionist William Pack combines story-telling and quick-witted humor with classic sleight-of-hand and psychic magic. At first his friendly, laid back delivery may make you think you can outsmart him. And as he deconstructs a few basic tricks, he dares you to question "what's the point?"

That's the moment when two cards switch places, two handkerchiefs become one, and Pack produces secret words known only to the audience.

William Pack peforms at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival. Photo by Doug Hanson.

Numerous people share the stage at various times as assistants, and Pack's excellent showmanship will have you guessing whether he's working with a confederate. With a mind as sharp as his switchblade, he makes it all look smooth and automatic — perfectly ... magical.

The Chicagoland references and clever one-liners are a great use of space between tricks, but this is no warmup act. When you see the amazing recreations of famous tricks by Max Malini and Harry Houdini, made all the more mesmerizing by Pack's historical accounts, your disbelief will vanish into thin air. And he does it all without a wand.

See for yourself Saturday, Sept. 17th at Noon at Imago Creative Studios.  Go to www. for more info.

Creative Moves at Elgin Fringe Festival

Scenes of outward and inward transformation come into focus in a solo dance by Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves: Performance at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

Projected images of circular movements and coiled snakes were the backdrop to a piece entitled "Shedding Skin." The dancer used her own circular motion as a metaphor for a change process, and developed a clear narrative beginning with the concept of skin: is it restrictive or merely protective?

Julie Leir-VanSickle performs "Shedding Skin" at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival.

As the performance shifts from pure movement into theatre, the dancer employs costume as an instrument by peeling layers first from hands, then arms, then neck and legs. The body revealed beneath is unsteady at first but it strengthens.

Signaled by outstretched limbs and freer breathing, the shedding process is finished when the protagonist literally dances out of her costume. But there is still more work to be done.

"Shedding Skin" is a thoughtful and technically ingenious meditation whose language is clear and poetic, and execution is simultaneously elegant and visceral.  You can see for yourself what becomes of shed skin — and the memory of it — at repeat performances Saturday, Sept. 17th at 3pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at noon at Next Door Theater.  Visit for info.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Janus Theatre Company Takes It to the Street

The boutique, the cafe, and the apartment are wonderful settings in which to enjoy scenes from Shakespeare, but the sounds — and smells — of a downtown Elgin alley are what make this progressive performance so great. Sure, we appreciate the Bard's timeless plot material and his exquisite use of language, but how often can you experience his plays as many of his contemporaries did: in a crowded, noisy, gritty open-air theater?

Janus Theatre Company reprised its "Walkabout: Theatre on your Feet" program for an eighth year Friday, as part of its Elgin 400 Shakespeare Festival, which brings a series of performances and workshops to downtown Elgin to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death. Four scenes from four different comedic plays were staged in four venues – an apartment at Elgin Artspace Lofts, Mural Alley, Soulful Sparrow, and the Blue Box Cafe — for small audiences leaving on foot every twenty minutes from Elgin Public House, and ending at Al's Cafe.

Paula Smiech and Molly Wagner of Janus Theatre Company
play a scene from The Merchant of Venice at Soulful Sparrow.

Each vignette, played at audience floor level by actors in plain clothes, showcased the wit of these classic scripts which still outshine any artists' mere performance of them. Yet in Janus' signature style, the closeup, even face-to-face delivery shifted the power to the actors' expressions and body language. Surprisingly raw, physical moments of action were a potent reminder that Shakespearean theatre is not safe for snobs.

Moving in and around the audience, ad-libbing local references, improvising props from anywhere in the room, the cast (superbly directed by Sean Hargadon) gave vivid life to characters conceived centuries ago. The only price of this compelling realism was a few syllables lost to modern-day tempo and diction: as a playwright and a poet, Shakespeare did not waste words. 

"Theatre on your Feet" continues Saturday at 2PM and 7PM, with tickets available at  The weather forecast is perfect, and the transit schedules suggest you will enjoy engine noise, exhaust fumes and random pedestrian entrances during scenes from Twelfth Night.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Wonder's Shakespeare: "A Hero on a Budget"

A playwright performs an improvised play in an improvised theater, about a playwright who works in an improvised theater. The circular references follow the millings of Nathan Wonder as a modern-day Shakespeare whose career is circling the drain.

The longer of its two titles is more descriptive: William Shakespeare Lives or William Shakespeare, a 30 year-old playwright who lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, has just opened his new play, Titus Andronicus, and it was not well-received; a comedy in three acts.

But "Shakespeare" is more like a prop than a character in this one-man show, serving as a gravitational center for a series of rants, reflections and beer-soaked introspections. Theatre insiders can relate to the narrative, and anyone can appreciate its universal message: we are in love with Possibility, and all our self-loathing is just frustration at being unable to rewrite the Past.

Seasoned by scholarship and spiked with vulgarity, William Shakespeare Lives is a saucy comedic monologue that approaches Man's classic internal conflicts armed with PBR, TV reruns, and a sublime desire to connect.

Repeat performances are July 16th at 8PM and July 17th at 3PM at the Elgin Art Showcase. Tickets are available at

Monday, June 13, 2016

Puccini Without Mosquitos

The weather was perfectly bug-free for an outdoor concert Sunday afternoon by four international talents in Soirée Lyrique's "Pop-Opera" on the Terrace of Snuffy's Villa. 

The Terrace is actually a large lawn surrounded by mature trees and beautiful landscaping in a rural residential area of West Dundee. Approximately seventy people gathered with lawn chairs and cool drinks around an improvised stage, amidst breezes and birdsong.

The 90-minute program consisted of more than twenty short works from musical theatre, opera and popular music dating to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ran the gamut from Puccini's poignant "O mio babbino caro" to Romberg & Donnelly's "Drinking Song."

Ad libbing between numbers and hamming it up behind the mic, these singers' personalities are as big as their voices. 

Korean tenor Simon Kyung Lee would have you believe that not only does he sing better than Pavarotti or Bocelli, he is also better-looking. Sicilian-American Franco Martorana exclaims, "What kind of Italians are you?" as the audience tries to repeat a few refrains from "Funiculì, Funiculà."

And criss-crossing the lawn in high heels and a gown, French-Canadian soprano Solange Sior shifts effortlessly from diva to saucy cabaret hostess and back again. 

But make no mistake, these are world-class professionals with impressive resumes, unfazed by the wind, sun, P.A. system, nor the cackles of a nearby rooster. We especially enjoyed watching them enter and exit the stage by way of a swinging gate marked "Beware of Dog."

Yet the greatest performance of all may be the work of piano accompanist Dr. Chiayi Lee, who proved once again that she can play anything, on any keyboard, wearing sunglasses, without missing a beat.

If you can believe that a ticket to see Insane Clown Posse will cost you $60, you must also consider the possibility that opera is not just for snobs.

And if you have any capacity for joy in your heart, you must see a concert by the musicians of Soirée Lyrique and realize that the world's greatest music is being sung right now in your neighbor's back yard.

For more information, go to

Saturday, May 21, 2016

After 38 Years, Independent Players Still Fresh with "Third"

Elgin's Independent Players theater company have three shows left in their 38th season — three more nights to present Wendy Wassertein's Third, a subtly complex period play that still sounds fresh and often funny ten years after it was written.

Set at an elite New England campus, the play explores the psyche of English Professor Laurie Jameson, an ultra-liberal academic with hardened views of gender, race, privilege, public policy and social status. When she meets an incongruous freshman who doesn't fit her theory of society, she endures two semesters of cognitive dissonance that confirm for us multiple ironies of the human experience, among them, that we tend to exemplify the very qualities that we condemn in others.

Lori Rohr plays Jameson with just the right haught, in prickly spars with her family, colleagues, and students.  Her quick head turns and flashing eyes project the arrogance and prejudice that Jameson can't see in herself, and crucial lines like "I shouldn't be here" (in therapy) and "I still know what I know" are bold-faced code words that signal her self-segregation from a larger, more complicated society.

Woodson Bull, III ("Third") is Jameson's freshman foil and in the title role, Wasserstein's artistic subject (though technically the antagonist) is portrayed stalwartly by Benedict Slabik II. At times awkward, and other times wise beyond his years, Third is an undersized wrestler who grapples with forces larger than himself, but ultimately settles for a draw. The wrestling subtext is clear and well-placed, but perhaps necessarily underdeveloped.

The plot revolves around a term paper writeup of Shakespeare's King Lear, and Wasserstein cleverly employs references to Wilder's Our Town and Austen's Pride and Prejudice as thematic devices throughout the play.  Jameson's aging and demented father Jack, played skillfully by Richard Westphal, is the image of Lear as a confused father, perfected (in a dance) by Third's own theory of the sublimation of desire.

Excellent performances by Molly Wagner (daughter Emily) and JoAnn Smith (Professor Nancy Gordon) add flavor to this well casted five-member ensemble, playing crucial scenes that deepen and advance the plot. Very careful touches by Director Larry Boller, like playing backs to the audience, and shaking or not shaking hands, did not go unnoticed.

With lights and audio on point, and the friendly acoustics of the Elgin Art Showcase helping lift every line, this play can't miss.  Listen carefully for the antecedents in Act One, and you'll relish every masterful dramatic cadence in Act Two of Wendy Wasserstein's final play.

Third continues May 21, 27, and 28 at the Elgin Art Showcase.  Go to for more information.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Reunion Jazz Ensemble with Mark Bettcher, Dave Katz and Marvin Stamm

Mark Bettcher's Reunion Jazz Ensemble returned to the Hemmens Thursday, reprising the Elgin Symphony Orchestra's once-a-year program that brings nationally known artists to the Watch City for a night of big band swing, ballads and up tempo charts.

Awash in colored lights, the Hemmens stage looks great and the sound is excellent when the mics are turned on.  The band tore up Kenny Dorham's Short Story to open the set — and set the tone for an audience who might be more familiar with Beethoven than bebop. Jerome Richardson's Groove Merchant was taken to the next level as guest trumpeter Dave Katz displayed his amazing chops with a left hand mute technique.  

Bandleader Mark Bettcher busted out a trombone solo on Joe Henderson's classic Recorda Me, and then treated the house to a hip and fearless vocal on a favorite ballad, Angel Eyes by Earl Brent & Matt Dennis.

The Reunion Jazz Ensemble, directed by Mark Bettcher.

The Reunion Jazz Ensemble is a twenty-piece band of accomplished musicians that includes seasoned veterans and up-and-coming stars who all play like pros. Most of them took solo turns at the mic and swapped parts throughout the evening.

But they played like a whole new band after the intermission, as trumpet legend Marvin Stamm took the stage.  The woodshed was clean, the rhythm was locked, and the brass was so tight it sounded like one player blowing fourteen horns.

Stamm's mellow, unlacquered tone carried beautifully throughout Lars Jansson's The Flyfisher, and Jobim's Quiet Nights opened and closed with Stamm playing off guitarist Bill Kadera like he had eyes in the back of his head. Scampering poetically around the midrange in long and short phrases, going dark, scooping into lip trills, the notes came from a deep and subtle language that few can speak, but all can understand. 

Bettcher brought some more heat on Cole Porter's I Love You, and tenor sax standout Matt Muneses played well beyond his years on more breaks in the second set.  Drummer Brent Jordan was cooking the whole time and dished some fiercely abstract licks as the night went on.

Yet a legendary musician like Marvin Stamm is more than just performance — he brings the wisdom of an artist to any discussion. In his extemporaneous remarks between numbers, he reflected on the importance of arts education, pointing out that playing in a band teaches us how to function in a community: to pursue individual excellence and also come together in service to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sammy Fain's Secret Love closed out the show with Stamm and Katz together, in an amazing display of distinct tonal colors and styles, exchanging questions and statements with the force of two politicians and the grace of two dancers.

Truly, Elgin needs more jazz. America's cultural gift to the world is now a world language, and it needs a revival anywhere that people want to expand the common ground.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

1+1: Maley Performs Bach and Glass

Artwork by Kelly Schultz

Pianist Rachel Elizabeth Maley presented a 60-minute recital of works by Philip Glass and J.S. Bach to raise funds for three local human services charities Sunday at St. Patrick's Church of St. Charles. Conceived as a program exploring compositional parallels, to us it was realized as a program of intersections, or incongruities.

St. Patrick's is a light, spacious and beautiful building whose muted earth tone interior is decorated with stark contrasts. A few human likenesses are surrounded by overwhelming patterns of rigidly ordered geometric forms. In the stained glass windows, the human figures are intersected by shapes with dark, heavy boundaries. We leave the interpretation to you.

In the midst of these visual tessellations, Maley explored the non-melodic motifs of Bach in a slow movement from the Italian Concerto (1735), Partita No. 1 (1726) and Toccata in E minor (1706). As a master of counterpoint, Bach displayed an astonishing talent for building large scale works out of small materials: he could use a single four-note sequence to produce many bars of music by inverting, transposing, multiplying or subdividing it.

This is the parallel with Glass, whose Études 2, 3, 6, 12, 20 (written between 1992 and 2012) also demonstrate composition based on, as he puts it, "repetitive musical structures." Using a pair of alternating notes like blades of grass, his works are more like textural landscapes than melodic tableaux — colored and shaded, but abstract rather than descriptive.

Maley has combined these composers before, and the extent of her understanding was evident as she shifted easily from Bach to Glass twice without pausing. Working from a digital tablet, she "turned pages" by tapping a pedal, and executed 300 years of keyboard technique with the touch sensitivity of a pianist and the left-hand skill of an organist, varying her volume of sound independently from a volume of notes so massive they had to be performed by remembering rather than by reading.

And instead of a mere exhibition of the music, this recital was an art performance in which Maley herself was the meaningful gesture against the repetitive musical structures of thousands of dots and lines. Swaying fluidly from phrase to phrase, tensing and relaxing, leaning forward, cracking a smile — her performance was beautifully imperfect and essentially human. It's an intersection of form and gesture she gravitates to in her own work, and in the images she paired with this event.

And if you knew her, you might say it's the kind of incongruity she works with every day.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Janus Theatre Turns Tragedy to Victory in "Hamlet"

With the audience seated tightly together in a cluttered utility room, the stage manager turns off the only light, leaves the room and shuts the door. So begins Janus Theatre Company's promenade-style production of The Tragical History of Hamlet.

The action takes place in a series of minimally-lit "found spaces" within the Elgin Art Showcase, divided by black curtains. Between each of its eight segments adapted from historic versions of the original play, the audience moves through a doorway or a draped passage to another small set, where the cast performs a classic scene in Janus's trademark intimate style.

Described metaphorically by Artistic Director Sean Hargadon as "a maze of Hamlet's mind," the sequence of spaces borrows ingeniously from the modern-day theatrical haunted house, in which a group of strangers is ushered through harshly lit, draped rooms amid disembodied noises, images of violence and intermittent appearances by ghosts. It's the perfect vehicle in which to experience the psychodramatic journey of Hamlet.

But there are few props, minimal makeup and costume — nothing to distract from Shakespeare's story and brilliant use of language. Unfazed by the Elizabethan English of the script, the actors trade lines as if they were written yesterday, yet you'll recognize many of the Bard's famous phrases and snippets of verse that have taken on lives of their own.

And you'll feel an attachment to the characters unlike anything you've experienced in an auditorium. The action is so close, you are inside the scene — and seeing the raw humanity of skin, spit, and sweat as actors stammer and tussle their way through dialogues activates all the emotions that drama is supposed to evoke.

The cast is anchored by returning Janus players Kelly Bolton, whose cunning comedic delivery was perfectly cast as the Gravedigger, and Melody Jefferies (Ophelia), whose command of character never fails to amaze us.

Newcomer Jim Hinton (Ghost/Claudius) is in fact a highly experienced actor and singer whose excellence of craft is apparent, and Joe Cattoggio in the title role channeled a conflicted and introspective Hamlet through his own naturally tense and impetuous persona. The tears we held back in the final scene with Ben Vogt (Horatio) were quite unexpected.

The Tragical History of Hamlet continues through May 7th. See for exact dates and times.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Elgin Master Chorale Wraps its Season with Restless "Requiem"

Ninety singers were joined by a twenty-five piece orchestra on the Blizzard Theatre stage Sunday for a concert of classics that a city ten times Elgin's size would be fortunate to hear.

This joint appearance with a chamber-sized Elgin Symphony Orchestra and four professional soloists marked the end of a glorious season that included works by Schubert, Beethoven, Rossini, and Verdi performed in venues throughout Elgin in numerous artistic collaborations.

The top of this program featured Vivaldi's Gloria in D Major (ca. 1715), including its introductory Ostro picta sung by soprano Kirsten Hedegaard. She was joined for the Gloria by countertenor Thomas Aláan who covered parts originally written for soprano and contralto.

Their voices traced ornate melodies over long vowels like the arcs of water in a Venetian fountain, and blended beautifully a due with excellent timing and intonation. The chorus surrounded them like an April force of nature: at times stormy or serene, dark or heavenly radiant.

Unamplified music sounds surprisingly good in the Blizzard Theatre; only a cathedral could have improved matters by providing a pipe organ with a voice to match this ensemble. We strained to hear the excellent keyboard work of Jon Warfel, who is recognized locally as the Choirmaster at Elgin's First Congregational Church.

The highlight of the afternoon was the Requiem in C Minor by Johann Michael Haydn, composed for an Archbishop's funeral during a two-week period in December 1771. The younger Haydn has been historically overshadowed by his brother Franz Joseph, though he produced a wealth of music of comparable quality.

But there is nothing much restful in this requiem. The chorus stands throughout the forty-minute work, in which many sections of the Mass are joined together without breaks. Subconscious turmoil is palpable in the counterpoint, and anguished dissonances have led historians to suggest that Haydn's own bereavement at the recent loss of his infant daughter influenced its creation.

Soprano Kirsten Hedegaard, countertenor Thomas Aláan, Maestro Andrew Lewis,
tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Eric Miranda with the Elgin Master Chorale
and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.

The pathos was evident in solo and duo passages by tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Eric Miranda, and the combination of all four voices as a solo quartet was spectacular. The chorus managed each entrance with great concentration and enunciated the Latin text so well that it was easy to follow in the printed transcription.

The Elgin Master Chorale, its singers, staff and board, accomplished a magnificent feat in this concert, in which every aspect — from the artists to the program booklet — was of the highest caliber. Maestro Andrew Lewis, celebrating ten years as Music Director, presented the chorus in its most highly practiced form, and exhibited complete control of the most important notes of every movement, especially the last one.

And this ensemble in particular represents the ever rising quality of amateur artists in the area, who join together with professionals in significant performances like these to create a record of excellence that continues to redefine Elgin as an important center for the arts.

For more information on coming events, including a rare summer outdoor performance, visit

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Soirée Lyrique's Stimulating "Viennese Concert"

Vienna is one of the world's great cities, famous not only for its musical legacy, but also for its great thinkers and classic cuisine. Imagine a Sunday afternoon of comic and lyrical songs and waltzes from this great tradition ... now imagine it performed mit höchste künstlerische Qualität in downtown Elgin.

The lovely atmosphere and excellent acoustics of First Congregational Church provided the setting for "A Viennese Concert," presented by Soirée Lyrique NFP, the premiere local arts group devoted to classical vocal performance.

This 90-minute program featured works by Strauss, Mozart, Korngold and Léhar in a variety of periods and styles, performed by a stellar group of soloists, accompanied by pianist Dr. Chiayi Lee and a string quartet from Chamber Music on the Fox.

If you think you have no appetite for opera, one taste of music by soprano Solange Sior, founder and Artistic Director of Soirée Lyrique, will awaken your cravings for more. In solos from Giuditta and Die tote Stadt, her voice was like apricot pastry, both sweet and tart, and so rich it leaves an impression on your conscience as well as your memory.

The cinnamon and vanilla tones of soprano Genevieve Thiers were the coffee of a Viennese dessert: simultaneously light and dark; part vision, taste and temptation. And like the finest torte, the sublety of her execution in solos from The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus belied the depth of talent and craft in their preparation.

No Viennese coffeehouse would be complete without the aroma of smoking pipes and the glow of gas lights. Nicholas Provenzale's smooth, smoky baritone filled the room with just the right flavor of Italian briar in songs from Die Zauberflöte and The Desert Song, and the white dinner jacket of Simon Kyung Lee reflected the warmth and radiance of his solos "Dein is mein ganzes Hertz" and "Vienna, City of my Dreams."

With characteristically relaxed elegance, the string quartet anchored by cellist Sara Sitzer, founding Co-Aristic Director of Chamber Music on the Fox, reminded us how fortunate we are in Elgin to have the resources of Chicago's world-class music community right in our backyard — and in many cases, literally just down the street.

The changing repertoire and amazing artistic lineup of Soirée Lyrique is exceeded only by the friendly ease and accessibility of its concerts, staged in familiar venues in and around Elgin. Visit for details on its upcoming June event.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Independent Players Take the Trick in "Octette Bridge Club"

Eight Irish Catholic sisters and their biweekly ritual are the ingenious premise for "The Octette Bridge Club," by P. J. Barry (1984), performed for a full house on opening night by the Independent Players.

Beautiful depression-era set design and costumes set the tone for a story that transports us to a time when people still relied on traditional gender roles and brittle social norms to find their place in the world. When these sisters gather to play cards, they gently suppress their classic birth order personalities and find moral support in censoring each other.

Cast of "The Octette Bridge Club" (back row, from left) Lori Rohr, Laura Schaefer,
Beth Hitzeroth-McDonald, Nancy Braus, Angela Douglass; (seated, from left)
Marilyn House, Patricia Rataj, B. J. Franquelli; Christopher Lenard.
Each of the actresses in this excellent cast must rely on careful timing to squeeze her lines in edgewise during scenes cluttered with smalltalk, which masks their real-life problems the way corsets and face powder hide their bodily imperfections. Repeated lines like "You're not yourself!" are subtle signals that even the sisters themselves can't decode.

Yet as the play develops, each artist manages to introduce glimpses of individuality through body language and highly nuanced delivery of an opportunistic script. Then a sudden childish regression takes over Betsy (played by Lori Rohr), triggering a game-changing breakdown as momentous as the crumbling walls of Jericho.

The struggle for true individual identity is not a unique plot trajectory, but this clever script is an excellent choice by veteran director Don Haefliger. Large families have a language and culture all their own, and "Octette" elicited standout performances by Rohr, Beth Hitzeroth-McDonald ("Connie") and Patricia Rataj ("Martha") in challenging roles.

Playing the entire second act in Halloween outfits, the sisters literally compete for the Best Costume award, but only Betsy rips off her veils to expose herself as she truly is. And the card game is a brilliant metaphor for the constant tension between cooperation and competition, switching partners, and "playing the dummy" in a family — and a society — with complex rules.

If you love a relatable story, vibrant acting, or powerful composition, and whether you like comedy or drama, you'll find it in "The Octette Bridge Club," which runs Friday and Saturday nights through March 19th.  For reservations, call (847) 697-7374.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Janus Theatre's Immersive Take on "An Iliad"

Don't let the title mislead you, this is An Iliad unlike any you've read, heard or seen before. Janus Theatre Company's area premiere of the work by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare puts the classic story of the Trojan War literally front and center.

The main character in this drama is the Epic Poet archetype, played alternately by actors Lori Holm, Ann Marie Nordby, Joe Cattoggio and Janus Artistic Director Sean Hargadon. In a series of monologues, the Poets retell the story like they have for generations, linking the tragedies of the ancient plot with centuries of human experience.

Shifting fluidly from narrator, to character to eyewitness, the Poets speak through elevated verse, classical Greek and bar room vernacular with a delivery so genuine we wonder how much material is scripted and how much is improvised. Because the play is not so much a drama as a description of a drama, its success relies crucially on the Poets' raw power to captivate an audience with storytelling.

Shadeless lamps lit several different spaces of the Elgin Art Showcase like the torches of Spartan tents as the audience moved from set to set, sometimes encircling the cast, other times surrounded by it. Carrying a suitcase of memories from scene to scene, the Poets deftly used a walking stick to portray personalities, punctuate key lines and act out combat with invisible warriors.

The finest performance of a role is when we see a character, not an actor. For this mixed cast to share the same role without any help from costumes or idiomatic scripting requires amazing sensitivity to the elements of character like voice, gesture, and manner. It couldn't succeed like it does without great talent, disciplined rehearsal and strong, deeply experienced directing.

Drinking freely from bottled spirits like the gods' ambrosia, the Poets remind us of a time when war was a gruesome but beautiful art, in which a soldier addresses his enemy in verse before disemboweling him. In the here and now, the horrors of war remain, but is there yet anything beautiful in the human heart for which good people will bravely fight, or even die?

An ordinary theatre production sets out to make you believe the action you see in front of you, but this is no ordinary theatre production. Janus Theatre's immersive take on An Iliad makes you believe characters and scenes you don't see, through a story channeled collectively through four skilled actors playing a single role.

Performances continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through February 28th. For tickets, go to

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Poetry of Music" at Elgin Art Showcase

After a weekend of amazing live chamber music performances at the Hemmens Cultural Center and Elgin Community College, two other groups joined forces at the Elgin Art Showcase to perform "The Poetry of Music" presented by Chamber Music on the Fox.

The 20-voice Chamber Singers of Elgin Master Chorale (EMC) were accompanied by the Elgin Chamber Players string quartet in Beethoven's "Elegischer Gesang" (1814) to open the death poetry-themed program. The choir made the room sound like a much bigger hall, especially faithful to the upper registers and more than honest with sibilant German consonants. Displaying tremendous dynamic range, the choir was capable of well-balanced fortes that could almost wake the dead.

The singers' gaze rarely left EMC Music Director Andrew Lewis, whose lucid conducting revealed the depth of their skill and preparation. No less a communicator with words, Lewis the educator shared insights on the evening's vocal works in impromptu remarks, for which the audience was overhead to whisper their gratitude during intermission.

The highlight of the choral performance was "Dark Night of the Soul," (2010) by living Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, an expansive work that opens with a minimalist piano accompaniment played by Jon Warfel, known locally as the Choirmaster of Elgin's First Congregational Church.

Long, sustained vowels and modern harmonies evoked the mood of long Scandinavian nights, combined with the mysticism of the text by St. John of the Cross (1542-1592). Moments of powerful musical rapture fueled by lyrics like "love's urgent longings" were almost too big for the room, as complex chords gushed out overtones like a North Sea gale. "Dark Night" is a beautiful piece whose only critic was the hard surfaces of the Showcase.

Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden") offered a chance to witness the talents of area musicians Tarn Travers, Eleanor Bartsch (violins), Aurelien Pederzoli (viola) and Sara Sitzer (cello), who is also co-founder of Chamber Music on the Fox.

Despite its nickname, the piece is neither frail nor morose. A better understanding of its subject comes from the medieval "dance of death," understood for centuries as a pushing and pulling between mortals and the Grim Reaper.

The four players traveled a wide range of emotions and musical postures throughout the work's four movements, matching each other's phrasing, dynamic changes and rubatos as if they have played together for a long time. Schubert's startling shifts in key, rhythm and register never put these pros off their game.

The room made it difficult to play soft enough at times, but they are few and far between in this nearly 50-minute masterpiece of the quartet repertoire. Displaying the stamina to match their talents, the players rallied through a dramatic and tumultuous finale with aplomb.

Equally astonishing is the mere fact that performances of this quality are now appearing regularly in venues throughout Elgin, creating critical mass for the arts here, in the middle of what was once viewed as a lifeless suburban cultural desert.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Hidden Lessons: The Fifth Annual EYSO Faculty Recital

In its fifth annual recital Sunday, the faculty and staff of Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra performed a wide variety of short, interesting pieces for an audience of mostly students and parents, but their finest work was not specifically noted in the program.

These inspired artists each taught a different lesson—often hidden, but always powerful—with their choice of material and careful performances.

Daryl Silberman performs
 three movements from
Canonic Sonata No. 1
in G Major by Telemann.
In her "digital duet" of three movements by Georg Telemann, violinist Daryl Silberman vividly demonstrated how listening is just as important to musicianship as is playing. Her delay-enhanced renditions, like performing in front of a mirror, makes the point that at times, we may learn the most when we listen to ourselves.

A minimalist composition by Philip Glass tied in neatly with EYSO's spring theme (exploring musical concepts of time), but another truth could be found in its world premiere arrangment for piano and four hands by Rachel Elizabeth Maley: a piece of music lives many lives. With every new performance or arrangement, we create a new life for it, using one of the few human powers that approach the divine.

Like the other selections in the recital, program notes for the marimba solo by Joe Beribak provided concise history and listening points, but his expert mallet work illustrated something different that every artist or athlete eventually must learn. Performance involves your whole body—its systems, size, position and proportion—and how it interacts with the space around it.

Joseph Beribak performs
Capricho Árabe by Tárrega.
The EYSO Faculty Recital offers unexpected instrumentation, like the combination of trumpet, violin and piano. Beyond the interesting pairing of brass with strings, the trio of Jason Flaks, Andrew Masters and Rachel Maley suggests that all voices, even muted ones, are capable of great beauty, and that everything that's beautiful is, first and foremost, sincere.

The Piano Quartet by Gustav Mahler is noteworthy because it's the only surviving piece of chamber music from the great symphonist's earliest years. Serving not just as a vehicle for the expressive playing by EYSO faculty, it proves that great work by a student is meaningful, and not everything from our own youth need be discarded.

Anthony Krempa (violin), Rachel E. Maley (piano),
Theresa Goh (viola) and Timothy Archbold (cello)
perform Piano Quartet in A Minor by Gustav Mahler.
With his well-placed "teachable moments," EYSO Artistic Director Randal Swiggum confirms what we have repeated for decades, that in Elgin, you can get as great an education as you want ... you simply have to want one.

Perhaps above all, this recital showed that technical perfection, despite its pedagogical importance, is not the goal of music education. Artistic expression is part of our humanity, and whether we choose the notes, play the notes, or listen to the notes, we can communicate across centuries in ways that transcend any particular language or doctrine.

The EYSO experience is not just for students who are preparing for advanced musical study; it is for any student preparing for a higher quality of life. For more information, visit

Timothy Archbold (cello), Randal Swiggum (piano) and Karen Archbold
(soprano) perform Geistliches Wiegenlied by Johannes Brahms.