Stage Shorts: Four Plays About the AIDS Crisis, Greek Tragedy, Missionaries and Swordplay in Skirts

Jude Hansen and Micah Kronlokken. Photo by Joh Olson.

Holding the Man Dramatizes True Story of Australian Actor’s Life With HIV

Holding the Man, based on Timothy Conigrave’s memoir of the same name, tells the heartbreaking life story of the Australian actor during the dawn of the AIDS crisis. As presented by Pride Films and Plays, this is a charming and energetic staging that, during the more sincere and tragic moments, manages to elevate some of the slightly campy material past mere kitsch. We follow Tim (Micha Kronlokken) and his high school boyfriend John (Jude Hansen) as they navigate coming out in the ancient ’80s, begin to hear of the HIV virus, and eventually test positive as a couple. The rest of the ensemble jumps from scene to scene, populating the world with the various characters from Tim’s teenage years and drama school days. Some of these choral characterizations are easier to digest than others, but for the most part the actors are game for the quick moving antics of this telling.

Evan Frank’s set is simple, but suggests the theatricality inherent in Tim’s life. Drama, both real and imagined, are central to playwright Tommy Murphy’s thesis on self discovery and the obstacles of gay love during unforgiving times. If the entirety lacks a bit of cohesion, it’s hard to fault either play or production fully. The script feels a bit overlong, and try as it might, director Michael D. Graham’s bare-bones style, with onstage costume changes and furniture flying in and out, only seems to add length to the proceedings. But arriving at the bittersweet and thoughtful finale, I recognized some real merit in the journey. Holding the Man‘s heart is always in the right place.

Holding the Man continues until August 26 at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets are $20-$30.

–Matthew Nerber
Wu, Robinson and Antkiewicz as Maddy, Antonia and Cassandra. Photo by Tom McGrath.

Greek Tragedy Descends on New Jersey in Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead)
at Promethean Theatre

Jami Brandli’s clever script for Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead) maps the path from tragic Greek heroines to 1960s New Jersey housewives. Sounds like a bad sitcom, right? But Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, smartly directed by Anna Bahow, makes you believe in the tribulations of Clementine (Clytemnestra), Maddy (Medea) and Antonia (Antigone). The play is funny and poignant and addresses relevant issues of racism, sexism and second-wave feminism.

By the middle of act one, you’re sympathizing with Clementine (Jamie Bragg), who wants to go to Reno to get rid of her traveling husband Arthur. You remember his Greek counterpart. (It was Agamemnon—and things didn’t end well.) Adorable Maddy (Alice Wu) is a fan of Emily Post and struggles to create the perfect tea party—and keep her crumpets from burning. But oops, I just remembered what happened to Medea’s children. And sweet Antonia (Kellen Robinson)? All she wants to do is go to the prom with her boyfriend Gil—and then later go to New Orleans with him to work on the civil rights movement. But she suffers from the curse of her ancestor, Antigone, daughter of the doomed Oedipus and niece of the evil Creon.

Cassandra (Kaci Antkiewicz) is a mother’s helper but she can’t abandon her ancient role as the truthteller who is never believed—the curse of Apollo. The arrogant Apollo himself (Jared Dennis) nags her about her current life and tries to lure her to join him on Mount Parnassus. But Cassandra feels ties to her new friends and wants to help them see they have choices, that their fates are not preordained.

Bahow directs her excellent cast in crisp performances. The pastel-toned set designed by Jeremiah Barr incorporates Antonia’s bedroom, Clementine’s kitchen and Maddy’s living room. Sadie Tremblay’s sound design blesses us with a soundtrack from the ‘60s.

Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead) by Promethean Theatre Ensemble continues through August 25 in Studio One at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. The play runs two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $29 with discounts available for students ($19) and seniors ($24) for performances Thursday-Sunday.

— Nancy Bishop

Collin Quinn Rice and Raphael Diaz. Photo by Michael Courier.

The Harvest Explores Missionaries’ Relationship to God and Each Other at Griffin Theatre Company

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Harvest, receiving a stunning Chicago premiere courtesy of Griffin Theatre, is an excellent, nuanced study of faith, love, and despair in the modern world. Jonathan Berry has assembled a near pitch perfect cast who, performing at the Den Theatre, charge this story with a sense of dread and profundity well deserving of its implied biblical connections. The play centers around the final days before an Idaho church’s trip to the middle east, as the missionaries make final arrangements, learn Arabic, and reveal their doubts, both religious and relational.

Our main focus is Josh (a reserved and fascinating Raphael Diaz), who has recently lost his father and is taking the trip as an opportunity to begin a new life in service of a Higher Power; while his companions will be home after four months, Josh plans to never return. His sister, Mickey (Paloma Nozicka) has hastened home after years away in an effort to stop Josh from making what she believes to be the biggest mistake of his life. Elsewhere, we witness a married couple (Kathryn Acosta and Taylor Del Vecchio) slowly deteriorate from within, the pastor’s son Tom (Collin Quinn Rice) inch closer to a nervous breakdown, and the mission’s coordinator (Kiayla Ryann), who may or may not fabricate divine occurrences in her own life in order to stoke the faithful fires of her devotees.

Hunter sketches these relationships with such precision that every exchange feels like a revelation, and Berry manages to reveal the epic inside the ordinary atop Sotirios Livaditis’ somber church basement set. The opening moments left me fascinated; the ending, which mirrors the beginning with eerie dissonance, gave me chills and more questions than answers. And that is where The Harvestis truly brilliant– in its ability to repeatedly provide the experience of gaining, losing, and doubting the utility of belief.

The Harvest continues through August 25 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Ticketsare $31-$36.

— Matthew Nerber

Falls and Resto as Lord Abernathy and Trothe. Photo courtesy Babes With Blades.

Swordplay in Skirts Makes The Lady Demands Satisfaction a Delicious Farce

Comedy, romance, mistaken identity and swordplay in skirts make The Lady Demands Satisfaction a delicious evening of theater. Babes With Blades Theatre Company is staging the world premiere of the Arthur M. Jolly play, winner of the company’s most recent Joining Sword and Pen Competition. Morgan Manasa directs the farcical proceedings with panache.

The play is set in the past somewhere in Europe. Young Trothe (Deanalis Resto) learns that her master swordsman father has been killed during a duel (but not because of the duel, an important point later). Now an orphan, she finds out from the sympathetic Lord Abernathy (Linsey Falls) that she will have to give up her house and land and live in a nunnery (giving rise to many nunnery jokes, both Shakespearean and otherwise) unless she can defend her home by the sword or marry a great swordsman. But Trothe and Osric (Felipe Carrasco), the poet, are in love and want to marry.

Trothe’s two maids—Penelope (Kate Booth) and Tilly (Ari Kraiman)—conspire to save her inheritance but things go slightly awry. Fortunately, Trothe’s aunt, Duchess Theodosia (Megan Schemmel), a renowned swordswoman, arrives to help. All ends well, for most of the characters.

Both Theodosia and Trothe demonstrate skillful swordwork while wearing long, full skirts and involved accessories. With fight choreography designed by Samantha Kaufman, all the swordswomen demonstrate martial talent on the small stage. Carlie Casas designed costumes and scenic design is by Chas Mathieu with lighting by Becs Bartle and sound by Becca Venable.

The Lady Demands Satisfaction runs two hours with one intermission. See it through August 25 at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students and seniors) for performances Thursday-Sunday. August 16 will be a pay-what-you-can performance. To reserve a seat, call 773-904-0391.

— Nancy Bishop

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Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.