Fall arts season evolves with the times

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

The cooler air of fall normally signals one thing for performing arts lovers — it's showtime at venues across the area. But with crowd size and social-distancing limits still required to keep everyone safe from COVID-19, arts organizations have had to rethink how they will present programming this fall and winter season, if they present it at all. 

For 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, putting on one show that was scheduled for fall/winter 2020 became part of its pledge "to stay creative and subversive while we share new plays by writers who have something to say about the world in which we are living," according to Artistic Director Ann Filmer.

Rastus and Hattie by Lisa Langford opens Sept. 24 for a one-month run as an audio play available virtually. The visuals, conceived by artist Roy Thomas, illustrate the dialogue provided by actors who recorded parts individually at a Chicago recording studio. Described as a "provocative comedy" that "delves into our traumatic legacy and explores new ideas about moving forward," it features friends and problematic robots. It also carries a content warning of "racist caricatures, racism and violence." The original production was imagined for the stage at 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St.  

 "This story was too important to let go," Filmer said. Since our theater is about dialogue inspired by often uncomfortable subjects, [it became about] how could we bring the story of Rastus and Hattie to audiences?" 

Oak Park and River Forest High School students are also working on plays this fall and winter with two Little Theater and two Studio 200 productions. All will be rehearsed and performed virtually. First up, on Oct. 23 and 24, is Clue: Stay at Home Version, directed by OPRF theater instructor Michelle Bayer. 

The two Studio 200 plays, one a romantic comedy, and the other, a dark comedy, are being directed by OPRF students Sivan Aharon and Katie D'Ambrogio, respectively, in October and December. The December Little Theatre production will likely be a radio play directed by OPRF History teacher Linda Burns.  

The Oak Park-based professional dance company, Momenta, is participating in CounterBalance, for the10th year — an event that includes workshops, panel discussions and performances of integrated dance. This year's offering, from Oct. 7 through 11, includes a compilation of works from past CounterBalance shows in which Momenta dancers, with and without disabilities, perform, "Reflections," and "Sensational Shorts." 

When it comes to musical performance, on Sunday, Sept. 13, the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest offered their first in-person concert since the pandemic began. It followed a summer of offering, "Music by the Numbers," that featured members of the Symphony performing a concert each week, from a solo through a nonet at Cheney Mansion, in partnership with the Park District of Oak Park. The Symphony is planning other in-person concerts for the fall and winter season, likely at the Arts Center of Oak Park, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. It is music director Jay Friedman's 25th season with the orchestra. Friedman has been principal trombonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for 55 years and shared those talents in the Music by the Numbers series. 

A much anticipated show from the Unity Temple Restoration Foundations (UTRF) Chamber Music Series, "Celebrating Beethoven," with musicians from the CSO and the Lyrica Opera of Chicago, including Oak Parkers Susan Warner (Lyric clarinetist), her husband David Griffin (CSO French horn player), Dennis Michel (CSO bassoonist) and Kuang-Hao Huang (piano), has been rescheduled from April to October. This performance is one of three for the fall/winter 2020 season that will likely take place live at Unity Temple, with its jaw-dropping setting and ear-pleasing acoustics, but presented virtually to audiences. Avalon String Quartet, originally scheduled for May, is now slated for November. Duo Diorama — MingHuan Xu on violin and her husband Winston Choi on Piano — will play a holiday concert in December. Xu and Choi are Oak Park residents and the music directors of the UTRF Chamber Music Series. 

The holiday season also brings a cancellation, a new production an old favorite.  

Ballet Leger announced in early August that they will not be putting on their annual Nutcracker ballet, a production that had been running for 35 years as of 2019. 

"We have taken the last few months to look at every conceivable option to deliver this holiday tradition that means so much to so many, but with the uncertainty surrounding this moment, and for the health and safety of our dancers, patrons, and staff, we see no foreseeable way to bring everyone together for this shared experience," said Artistic Director Donna Vittoria in a statement.

Oak Park Festival Theatre postponed their production of The Madness of Edgar Allen Poe: A Love Story scheduled for this fall at Cheney Mansion, but they are still planning a production for 2020. The theater company is working on "an online holiday production of Christmas Comes but Once a Year, written by Artistic Associate George Zahora."

"Sing We Joyous!," performed annually at First United Church of Oak Park, with the talents of Pro Musica Youth Chorus, City Voices, the Oriana Singers, and the Sing We Joyous Orchestra, and led by Bill Chin, will be presented virtually this year as a variety show. 

Mid-December also brings virtual performances by the OPRF bands, orchestras and choirs, recorded by individual musicians but edited into large ensemble pieces. This time of year is known for its packed-auditorium Prisms of Winter Concert at the high school. According to Anthony Svejda, director of bands, students will dress in concert attire for the recordings. It is not yet known if these recordings will be released to the public due to copyrights on the music. 

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