Archive for April, 2011

Polarity Announces Epic 2011-2012 Season

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

by Richard Engling

Richard Engling & Bryson Engelen play Peer Gynt

Richard Engling & Bryson Engelen play Peer Gynt. Photo Credit: John Sisson

It is with great joy I announce our 2011-2012 season. This will be our biggest and most impressive line-up yet. It includes an important world premiere, an epic classic staged in a prestigious downtown venue and a bawdy romp that is sure to please–as well as our annual Dionysos Cup. It’s even possible that we’ll be moving to a new home!



We start with Keith Anwar‘s Kabulitis, a project very close to my heart. Keith’s play won the 2010 Dionysos Cup—and deservedly so. Keith had time to do a final rewrite of the script after the Festival, and then a sudden and aggressive liver cancer took his life. Keith was a talented and generous man, and his play stands as testament to the depth of his soul. We miss him terribly. Kabulitis gives us an intimate look into the life of an American woman married to an Afghani man living in Kabul, Afghanistan. The story was inspired by the lives and stories of Keith’s parents and family. Given America’s involvement in Afghanistan, the play could not be timelier. Polarity will produce Kabulitis in association with Rasaka Theatre Company, a wonderful South Asian American theatre ensemble whose work I admire. Rasaka’s artistic director Lavina Jadhwani will direct, and I am working on a final edit of the script, with the approval of Keith’s widow Connie. Together we intend to help Keith’s impressive and beautiful work live on. It is work that deserves to be seen–especially right now. World Premiere of Keith Anwar’s Kabulitis September 20 – October 30, 2011.

Bryson Engelen & Erica Bittner

Bryson Engelen & Erica Bittner in Peer Gynt. Photo: John Sisson

Next we will produce the Chicago premiere of Robert Bly’s translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt at the prestigious DCA Storefront Theatre on Randolph near Michigan Avenue in the Loop. It is a feather in Polarity’s cap to have won a competitive bid for a Storefront slot—and it is a great satisfaction to me to stage Robert’s zany, muscular translation of the script. Robert is a best-selling author, a National Book Award Winner, Poet Laureate of Minnesota and a national treasure. I was privileged to participate in some of the early table readings of the script when Robert was commissioned by the Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis to do the translation. Robert has been a personal mentor and influence as I’ve participated in founding and guiding Polarity Ensemble Theatre through these past seven years. It was during a walk in the woods with Robert when he first suggested Polarity produce Peer Gynt. It’s another feather in Polarity’s cap to host the first production of this wonderfully zany script after its acclaimed premiere.

The third feather in Polarity’s cap is to have landed Jeremy Wechsler of Theatre Wit to direct. Jeremy has been pursuing Peer Gynt for over a decade. He worked on an adaptation of the script with Eric Overmyer, and he knows the play inside and out. Despite his passion for the project, this is the first time everything has lined up to allow him to direct. I am convinced Jeremy is the absolute best director in town for this project, and we are very lucky to have him. Chicago Premiere of Robert Bly’s translation of Peer Gynt November 15 – December 18, 2011.

Tom Jones

Tom Jones

In the Spring we will produce the Midwest premiere of Tom Jones, an adaptation of the 1749 Henry Fielding novel by David Hammond. This is a big, sexy, funny romp of a play to be directed by Polarity’s new Managing Director, Maggie Speer. This play is really going to be fun. Both Tom Jones and Peer Gynt are big sprawling shows that will allow the Polarity actors to come out in force. Midwest Premiere of David Hammond’s adaptation of Tom Jones March 21 – May 1, 2012.

Finally, we will present our annual Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays to continue our mission of developing tomorrow’s best new plays. We hope you will join us for every delightful moment. Dionysos Cup May 11 – 22, 2012.

In the midst of all this activity, we are exploring a possible move to Howard Street, on the Evanston side of the Chicago/Evanston border. The City of Evanston has purchased a double storefront and has offered Polarity the opportunity of making it our permanent home. We are highly intrigued by this possibility, but we are going to need help if we are to make it a reality. If you’d like to get in on the fun of building a new home for Polarity, contact me.

My very best,
Richard Engling, Artistic Director

Season Subscriptions

Subscribers get invitations to free special events, unlimited ticket exchanges, $5 off tickets to bring friends, and the best price on the full season.

Gala Night Series—$80
Join us for Gala Night excitement on our opening Fridays: 9/23, 11/18, 3/23. The package also includes a Dionysos Cup Festival Pass good for all 8 performances, and is a $115 value!

Regular Night Series—$50
Chose your performance, get a Dionysos Cup Festival Pass, and save 25% on this package — a $67 value!

Week 1: 9/24-25, 11/19-20 & 3/24-25
Week 2: 9/30-10/2, 11/25-27, 3/30-4/1
Week 3: 10/7-9, 12/2-4, 4/6-7
(no show Easter Sunday, 4/8)
Week 4: 10/14-16, 12/9-11, 4/13-15
Week 5: 10/21-23, 12/16-18, 4/20-22

Dionysos Cup Festival Pass good for all 8 performances, 5/10-20.

Bryce Wissel’s EPHEMERA here to stay

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

by Darren Callahan

Bryce Wissel

Playwright Bryce Wissel

Isolation breeds all sorts of odd human behavior. We know this from life, but also from films and fiction, particularly with stories set in outer space. But how often is outer space isolation explored in the live theatre? Sci-fi is a tough sell on an audience that is seated only 15 feet away; isolation is hard to grasp when you’re elbow to elbow with a sold-out audience. Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s approach to the challenge: comedy and complete immersion. Starting with actors dressed as androids who escort the audience into the belly of a space station, to the uniquely spectacular two-tone set, and its truthful performances, Polarity aims their lasers on pure escapism with a high production value.

Ephemera, Polarity’s Spring 2011 production, written by Bryce Wissel and directed by Laura Sturm, is an existential comedy that enjoys both a simple twist of language, such as:

Can I answer your question with a question?


Then what did I just do?

…to the complex yearnings of astronauts, ape-men, and mariachi-singing robots.

From his home in Los Angeles, Wissel says, “I like to think that my brand of comedy is intelligent, but it’s not afraid to get absurd, or a little dirty. More to the point, my take on the plight of the characters in the play is basically a version of what we all face every day: an unspoken knowledge that sooner or later, we’re all going to die, and that everyone finds their own ways of dealing with (or avoiding) that fact. Hilarious, huh?”

The fact that Wissel is able to successfully mine a hefty helping of jokes from a hyper-realized version of The Alamo – source material that gives the play its characters’ names and a structural framework – is a testament to the strength of his writing.

“The first time I encountered Ephemera was (in selecting) the play for The Dionysos Cup (Polarity’s annual new plays festival,)” remarks Sturm. “As I read it, I could just envision it in my head. All of the lights and the bells and whistles and people running around like crazy… Then when we decided to choose it as one of our season pieces I was like, ‘Ooh. Now’s my chance…’”

Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling also immediately recognized the play’s commercial potential, as well as the effect it might have on an audience. “It was a really interesting show that attracted all of the directors. It demands a huge amount of attention to detail in the production, but when that attention is there, it pays off with the viewers.” Wissel says little of the play’s text has been changed since the Dionysos Cup. “I’ve been working on this play on and off since 2005, so its major revisions all happened before I sent it to Polarity. Some minor dialogue changes have been made, however, to improve some punch-lines or to make certain parts of the story clearer.”

Regarding science fiction on stage, it’s been done, but rarely. Though the production will ‘geek-out’ the hardcore sci-fi fan, Wissel cautions, “I wasn’t drawn necessarily to science fiction as much as I was to the idea of taking a very sad story and marrying it to a fantastical world. I was hugely influenced by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. I love the Back to The Future movies, and when I was younger I was a little bit of a Star Wars nerd. But for Ephemera, it actually owes a lot to the movie Shaun of the Dead.” The comparisons between a zombie apocalypse and The Alamo in space are apt. This is thinking-person’s comedy that’s not immune to pratfalls and ape-man shenanigans. With enough jokes to provide momentary laughs and enough drama to last in the mind, Ephemera promises to be a unique and entertaining, and linger beyond the short disregard of its title.

Ephemera runs through May 1. Playwright Bryce Wissel will join the cast of Ephemera for a post-show talk-back after the 8pm performance, Saturday, April 30th. Polarity Ensemble Theatre is in residence at Wicker Park’s Josephinum Academy. The theater is located at the 1500 N. Bell Street entrance. Tickets are $19 general admission. Senior discount tickets (age 65 and older) are $15, and student discount tickets are $10 with valid ID. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Purchase tickets at or call the box office at 800-838-3006. For more information visit

Special thanks to Darren Callahan for this report.

Ape-Man Seen At Local Theatre!

Monday, April 11th, 2011

by Darren Callahan

Charley Jordan as Davy

Charley Jordan as Davy

“I went to the zoo!” exclaims Charley Jordan, one of the stars of Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production of Bryce Wissel’s science fiction comedy Ephemera. That is not the usual bit of method-acting research one might declare in an interview, but in this case it very much applies. Jordan plays Davy, an ape so evolved that now he has nearly become a man. How did this happen, you ask? Davy was the first chimp shot into space and, when the play begins, his arrival on the space station ‘Ephemera,’ where the crew battles isolation and their own unusual dynamics, kicks things off in style. “I don’t run around on all fours,” Jordan clarifies, “and it’d be pretty difficult to be hunched over the whole show, but I did learn one thing from the zoo: it’s all butt and gut.”

Jordan’s first full-on comedy, Ephemera offered many new challenges to the actor, well-regarded for his roles in Polarity’s past productions, such as the more classical Polonius in Hamlet. Not having a haircut for six months before opening, keeping a hard mandate on no shaving, he acknowledges this is the most physical change he has undergone. As Jordan does not nearly have the genetics of, say, Robin Williams, additional hair will be added to his arms and hands and lower legs, and he will also wear a helmet that will augment the effect. “I might shave my moustache, too,” he winks, “just to be even more primate.”

For this significant costuming and other challenges, two full weeks of technical rehearsal were scheduled. With the high-number of sound and lighting effects to fulfill a modern audience’s expectations of science fiction, the rehearsals offer a great opportunity to master the tricky costumes. Kaelan Strouse (as mariachi-signing robot Manuel) and Jordan have their work cut out for them. They’re like the drummer and synthesizer player of a rock band – the first to arrive, the last to leave – as they have the greatest burden of equipment.

When asked if director Laura Sturm (director of Polarity’s past production The Rivals and star of their A Streetcar Named Desire) ever asks him, “Can you do that scene or line ‘less ape?’” Jordan laughs. “No, Laura’s more interested in keeping the character true.” An example of that is that this ape-man is in L-O-V-E. And, being in love, you would think his approach to his woman of choice might be rude and nasty. He is, after all, part-animal. “That’s the sort of thing Laura is helpful with – not trying to play a womanizing drunken monkey, but to go deeper than that.”

Helping in his research was a set of materials prepared by the show’s dramaturg, Sarah Grant. A lengthy history on the space program, and the role chimps played, starting in 1949, gave Jordan the start of a backstory quite different from a human one, but adaptable nonetheless. The materials went all the way through the expected privatization of the NASA program, as corporations are becoming more capable of sustaining the high cost of space exploration, much more so than the U.S. Government.

To make things even more difficult for Jordan, the play is full of rewinds and fast-forwards, with repeating scenes from different angles. Sturm orchestrates the precision of each actor so that the mix-up has a consistency in everything from blocking actor’s positions to facial expressions. Jordan appreciates this attention to detail and knows that, if it were just him to remember, he’d be lost. With the help of the entire cast and crew, actors literally fall into place, to the point where the last resting place of a space helmet can be the deciding factor between good ape and bad ape. (Did you catch the Planet of the Apes joke there?)

Ephemera runs through May 1, directed by ensemble member Laura Sturm, featuring a “site-specific installation” by Chicago multi-medium artist lewis lain. Polarity Ensemble Theatre is in residence at Wicker Park’s Josephinum Academy. The theater is located at the 1500 N. Bell Street entrance. Tickets are $19 general admission. Senior discount tickets (age 65 and older) are $15, and student discount tickets are $10 with valid ID. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Purchase tickets at or call the box office at 800-838-3006. For more information visit