Or, why isn’t there anything to see in Chicago in the dead of winter?
Softly Blue, MPAACT at the Greenhouse Theater Center through March 15: Agoraphobes in love are at the heart of Shepsu Aakhu’s play, which premiered at MPAACT some years ago and here experiences a gorgeous revival under the direction of Andrea J. Dymond. Though the premise sounds slightly comical, these two—a man grappling with what he regards as the death sentence of diabetes and a women overwhelmed by anxiety and depression—are serious as a heart attack when they try to connect honestly via Internet and phone. Like the bar-rats in The Iceman Cometh, they’re always going to go outside soon, and as in Iceman the audience hopes against hope that they will, until the ending breaks our hearts. Dymond makes powerful use of unseen singers to underscore the relationship’s ups and downs; and the two actors, Brandon Greenhouse and Demetria Thomas, go deep into the hearts of their characters and into our hearts.
Edgar & Annabel, The Poor Theatre at The Side Project through March 15: Sam Holcroft’s political thriller is also a play about performing, as the title characters turn out to be inventions designed to fool a Big Brother-like government into believing it’s eavesdropping on a placid suburban home instead of a safe-house used by a burgeoning rebellion. This is the Midwest premiere of a show from England’s National Theatre, but it plays flawlessly with American accents: no one who reads the papers will doubt that what’s portrayed—an oppressive government posing as the bastion of freedom—is relevant to strains in our own politics. Nor is the connection which evolves between “Annabel” and “Edgar” (Abbey Smith and Michael Medford, both excellent) a mere device in the service of a political message. Rather, it’s the true core of the play: if their bond can’t survive, neither can their struggle for freedom. And layered onto these political and personal meanings is an existential one, about how people perform their lives and come to be the thing they perform, whether they want to or not. Under Brad Akin’s direction, and with fine support from the rest of the cast, Medford and Smith make us care about every dimension of this multifaceted work. It’s unusual to see heart-pounding political suspense on stage—that’s moved largely to the movies, to the extent it hasn’t disappeared altogether—so that’s another reason to see this incisive portrait of the future we’re in the process of summoning. First-rate.
One Came Home, Lifeline Theatre through April 5: Lifeline’s stock in trade is stage adaptations of literature, and all the company’s strengths are on display in this world premiere version of an Edgar Award-winning and Newberry Honor novel by Amy Timberlake. We’re quickly immersed in the story of Georgie Burkhardt, a rebellious teenager in post-Civil War Wisconsin whose sharpshooting skills come in handy when she insists on following the trail of a sister everyone else believes has been murdered. As adapted by Jessica Wright Buha and directed by Lifeline stalwart Elise Kauzlaric, this is in no sense a “children’s show,” though the protagonist is a young adult. Georgie’s grief wars with her belief as her hostility to her sister’s beau turns to interest; these are all fully-rounded and fully-adult emotions, particularly as expressed by Ashley Darger, whose face changes expressions as readily as her character’s finger hits the trigger. And the overall production—including set and properties by Alan Donahue, costumes by Aly Renee Amidei and original music (folk-influenced and period-perfect) by John Szymanski—transform Lifeline’s challenging space into a world complete with fluttering pigeons, woodland refuges and happened-upon body parts. Want American history?—forget American Girl dolls; forget even “True Grit.” See One Came Home.
Redlined, Chicago Slam Works at Stage 773 through March 13: This is less a theater piece than an evening of sketch comedy alternating with slam-style poetry, about half of which works—not a terrible average for the medium. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting because I was confused by a headline describing Redlined as being “written and choreographed by the House Ensemble,” by which I thought was meant The House Theatre of Chicago. Rather, Chicago Slam Works is the group of interdisciplinary artists which makes its home at Stage 773. Don’t go confused and you won’t be disappointed by a grab-bag of scenes in which the Red Line serves as a metaphor for violence, gentrification and the state of race relations with equal parts naivete and witty observation. Particular kudos to Rashaad Hall for his nuanced performance: alone among the performers he’s identified simply as “Actor,” rather than “Poet/Actor” or “Actor/Hip Hop Artist,” and the skills which come with that designation are fully on display here.
A Kid Called Jake, About Face Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center through March 15: This Chicago premiere of Daniel Pearle’s play receives a bang-up production from director Keira Fromm and her ensemble, particularly Katherine Keberlein as the mother of a 5-year-old boy who likes to dress like a princess. “Cross-gender behavior,” as it’s delicately styled here, is clearly in the wheelhouse of About Face, a self-described “celebrated center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and ally arts…to advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity.” Interestingly, though, the play is much more a comment on First World Problems, as Upscale Mom and Dad agonize over getting little Jake into New York’s best private pre-schools. In this environment one shudders not at the prospect of a boy’s going trick-or-treating as Snow White but at the possibility that he might have to go to public school. If the play and production were intended to demonstrate the ordinariness of cross-gender behavior, such a rarefied atmosphere undermines that message, leaving my companion complaining at the end that while he understood the point of the play (parents should love children regardless of their gender orientation, and should not deny or attempt to influence that orientation), he didn’t understand the point of view: were we supposed to identify with these privileged people, or critique them, or ignore their privilege the way they ignore their son’s gender nonconformity? In any case, it’s well-spoken, even eloquent, preaching to the choir.
Sondheim on Sondheim, Porchlight Music Theater at Stage 773 through March 15: My favorite moment in this latest revue of Stephen Sondheim’s work came at the start of the second act, when the videotaped composer shows off a gilded box while addressing the audience directly: “And these are my fingernail clippings. I’m planning to give them to the Smithsonian.” I rejoiced that someone other than me had noticed the air of veneration growing a bit thick and incense-scented. Sondheim is a fine composer and lyricist, even an amazing one, and an evening of his music is bound to entertain, particularly where, as here, fine singers are gracefully directed (by Nick Bowling) and accompanied by an inspired pianist (music director Austin Cook, coiffed and shaved to resemble the composer). But we’ve already had Side by Side by Sondheim, Marry Me A Little, Putting It Together, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and the aspirationally-titled Moving On, not to mention the original musicals themselves: isn’t it, to coin a phrase, enough already? My friends who are musical theater professionals raved about this production, and perhaps my skepticism is the inevitable result of seeing something after a rave (which should be a lesson to me, as a congenital rave-er); but more likely it’s the result of my NOT being a musical theater professional but merely someone who loves the work. As long as there’s a very large in-group I guess it’s fine to stage an in-joke/homage; but could we now suspend eulogizing at least until the man is dead? If none of this resonates with you—if you can’t imagine having too much Sondheim—then by all means see Porchlight’s able production.
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker, Black Ensemble Theater through March 15: The first straight play presented at BET after nearly twenty years of musical bio-plays (about Jackie Wilson, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and many others) is a fact-based courtroom drama about Walker, an African-American whose professional baseball career pre-dated that of Jackie Robinson by more than 50 years. In 1891 Walker, also a college-educated inventor and businessman, was accused of murdering a white man—and any Northerners who’d like to plume themselves on our lack of racism will get a rude shock as first-time playwright Ervin Gardner takes us through the hero’s trial in Syracuse, New York, featuring dismissive prosecutors, lying witnesses and observers with their own prejudices. The decision to address the audience as the jury is a flattering as well as an engaging one, but the indictment of America at large can’t be escaped. Director Jackie Taylor gets good performances out of her enormous cast (19 people playing 24 characters with the aid of facial hair generously applied), particularly Andre Teamer as Walker, struggling to retain his dignity as well as his life in the face of crushing opposition, and Nick Ferrin as his bulldog of a defense lawyer. The play is serviceable rather than brilliant, but the production (including film-style underscoring composed by the protean Taylor) will hold your attention and command your loyalties.