We duel over Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street at Eclipse, and then J. recommends Bite: A Pucking Queer Cabaret (a deconstructed Midsummer Night’s Dream) at Mary’s Attic while K. chooses an actual Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one at First Folio.
Richard Cotovsky in Profiles Theatre’s Hellcab by Will Kern; photo by Michael Brosilow.
The phrase “holiday show” generally suggests Dickens and his offspring: variously heartwarming and caustic, but in any case addressed directly to the meanings ascribed to the season. However, two current shows consider the holiday from unique angles, for which we should all be grateful. Profiles Theatre presents its third annual revival of Will Kern’s Hellcab, a one-man show with a cast of dozens. This 1992 piece, created by the late lamented Famous Door Theatre and originally intended only for a brief late-night run, presents the adventures of The Driver (the suitably weathered Rich Cotovsky) as he steers his cab throughout Chicago on Christmas Eve. A cornucopia of actors drop in for a single scene, portraying the fighting couple, the angel-winged accordionist, the amorous cougar and every other imaginable encounter on the mean-but-not-always streets. It’s a beautiful piece, ably directed by Eric Burgher, and its tiny bit of Christmas spirit is just the right amount. Through January 11 on the Profiles Mainstage, 4139 North Broadway. Tickets $35-$40.
If it strikes you as too early for Christmas, check out the Thanksgiving taking place onstage at the American Theater Company, presenting the world premiere of Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Roundabout Theater Company in New York commissioned this play and will mount it in the spring, but it will be hard-pressed to do a better job than director P.J. Paparelli has with this production. ATC has something of a hot hand right now: it presented the world premiere of Disgraced, which just opened on Broadway (I’m still kicking myself for having missed it), and has an ongoing relationship with Karam, who co-authored with Paparelli the succes d’estime columbinus. On a superbly evocative two-level set by David Ferguson, the troupe enacts in real time a first Thanksgiving at the Soho dump, er, duplex of a young couple faced with hosting her parents, sister and demented grandmother. The good news about the play is that it’s a pitch-perfect rendition of a family holiday; the bad news is that it’s a pitch-perfect, etc. You may want to wait until after your own Thanksgiving before sharing that of the Blake family; that way, instead of dreading what’s ahead of you, you can laugh at—and begin to understand—what’s behind. The production is anchored by three of Chicago’s finest veterans: Keith Kupferer as the troubled father, Hanna Dworkin as the put-on-a-happy-face mother, and Lance Baker as the boyfriend encountering his beloved’s family for the first time. If you don’t recognize your own family, perhaps you’re from Mars. Through December 21 at ATC, 1909 West Byron. Tickets $43-$48.
Not everything onstage is about the holidays, of course, not even if its author is Dickens.
Strawdog Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit Great Expectations is a perfect rendering of Gale Childs Daly’s remarkably clear and effective adaptation of that flopulous book about the damaging consequences of social climbing. Daly manages to retain Dickens’s voice with judiciously chosen passages read by the six actors who also play all he roles, while straightening out the tangled mess of plot woven by that paid-by-the-word Victorian. Director Jason Gerace’s production is comic where it can be, sincere where it needs to be, and unpretentious throughout. Mike Tepeli (reprising the role) gives Pip all his dimensions: asinine, touching, misguided, loving, while the rest of the company changes character with nothing more than a ruched-up skirt or scarf to help them communicate the changes. Great Expectations (unlike the aforementioned “holiday” shows) is suitable for children, provided they have decent attention spans; it runs 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission. Scheduled to run through December 13 (with the possibility of an extension) at Strawdog, 3829 North Broadway. Tickets are $28.
And finally, there are three pieces about war: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Women at War; Eclipse Theatre Company’s Mud, River, Stone and Spartan Theatre Company’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day.
Rivendell’s Women at War, written by company member Megan Carney and directed by Artistic Director Tara Mallen, speaks in the voices of real women who’ve served over the past twenty years. Perhaps most surprising to those of us who are safely civilian is the pride the soldiers, sailors, airmen (their term) and marines take in their service, notwithstanding the sacrifices and adjustments that service requires. The women’s patriotism is a multi-layered thing, and one of the pleasures of the evening is watching their different attitudes begin to converge and their fiercely individual reasons for joining up begin to meld into an equally fierce sense of comradeship and community. Their struggles to be recognized as full partners, while they’re deployed or when they come home, are more familiar but no less moving, and the final moment—in which the names of all the soldier-contributors are spoken by the actors—is truly poignant. Through December 6 at Rivendell, 5779 North Ridge. Tickets $32-$35, with $10 discounts for students, seniors, veterans and military personnel.
Mud, River, Stone by Lynn Nottage, concluding Eclipse Theatre Company’s season of her work, offers a completely different perspective on the business of war. A pair of privileged African-Americans decide to seek their roots in South East Africa and find themselves lost in the jungle. They take refuge at a once-grand hotel and find it anything but: no food, no heat, no telephone service. There is, however, plenty of alcohol, and by the time it’s been sufficiently abused by others at the hotel the Americans find themselves among hostages in a civil war about which they know nothing and care less. Nottage undercuts some of the tension by constructing the play in flashback, so we know the protagonists survive; but as her primary point seems to be that the survival of one individual is no more important than that of any other, her choice of structure helps compel the audience to pay more attention to the Africans than we might otherwise. Like much of the playwright’s work, Mud, River, Stone highlights the impossibility of communication—especially but not exclusively of the cross-cultural sort—and under Andrea J. Dymond’s direction every member of the cast demonstrates with great skill how people talk past each other until they become so desperate they give up on language and use violence instead. AnJi White is particularly fine as the American wife, who combines smarts with so much snobby shortsightedness that her brains do her no good at all. Through December 14 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport. Tickets $28.
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day treats war as a hideous necessity rather than the grim joke it seems to be for Nottage. Set simultaneously in the early 1930s and in the early 1980s, it chronicles the impact of Hitler’s rise on a group of intellectuals in Berlin and draws parallels between their refusal to acknowledge the need for action and Ronald Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. In Spartan Theatre Company’s flawless rendition, this fever-dream of a play succeeds in evoking contemporary life and our need to acknowledge and act on the issues of our time, whether domestic spying or climate change or collapsing democracy. Director Laura Elleseg never lets the parallels get heavy-handed, instead presenting a phenomenally sharp and clear and current version of a play blessedly written before Tony Kushner started reading his notices and learned he was a genius. It’s only playing through this weekend (November 23); do. not. miss. it. At the Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1422 West Irving Park Road; tickets $15-$20.
The Dueling Critics get intimate with Intimate Apparel at Eclipse Theatre, and Jonathan reports news of Next Theatre and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Kelly Owens and Eustace Allen in Eclipse Theatre Company’s Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, directed by Steve Scott. Photo: Tim Knight.
K. sez: A good week in Chicago theater, especially for women!
Stage Left and Theatre Seven revive Principal Principle, their drama of teachers’ lives in a real Chicago Public School, Chinua Achebe Academy High School on the South Side. Playwright Joe Zarrow, a former English teacher himself, has made a tense comedy out of a group of archetypes: the teacher on the verge of retirement, the Teach for America newbie, the clueless principal and her latest educational fad, and a pair of veteran teachers, one of whom goes along to get along while the other rebels. Formulaic as it may sound, in Scott Bishop’s production every character is given her due and the key issue of race simmers in every interaction until it explodes. Through August 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont in Lakeview; well worth catching if you want to know something about Chicago’s schools beyond the slogans in the newspapers.
Black Ensemble Theater’s latest musical bio-pic (bio-play?) The Marvelous Marvelettes includes all the elements we’ve come to expect: outstanding musical impersonations, fine orchestration over-amplified and a rather too obviously expository book. But playwright Reginald Williams and director Rueben D. Echoles are skilled enough to bring some freshness to the formula. The device of having characters reflect on their younger selves is not new, but here the older Marvelettes (played by Rhonda Preston and Deanna Reed-Foster) convey a genuine love for each other as well as a reality-tinged nostalgia for what happened back in the day. Melody McCullough gives lead singer Gladys both sweetness and strength, and Alanna Taylor plays her rival Wanda with a fine bite and a comically accurate drunk act. You’ll leave humming the songs, and what more could you ask of a musical? Through September 7 at the BET Cultural Center on Clark in the East Ravenswood Historic District (a/k/a Uptown).
Eclipse Theatre continues its season of plays by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Lynn Nottage with Intimate Apparel, which received its Midwest premiere in 2005 at Steppenwolf. The piece, a modest drama set at the turn of the 20th Century about an African-American seamstress whose love of beauty contrasts strongly with her own plainness, has worn well. Dreading spinsterhood, Esther begins an epistolary romance with a black man laboring on the Panama Canal, even as she’s drawn to the Jewish man who shares her love of beautiful fabrics. Kelly Owens as Esther communicates every layer of her character with both subtlety and clarity, and receives strong support from the rest of the cast under Steve Scott’s sure direction. Owens’ interactions with Eustace Allen as the cloth dealer are especially lovely. And the play doesn’t make you want to kill yourself at the end, which distinguishes it from lots of other dramas chosen by Chicago theaters as light summer play-going. Try not to sit in the front row or you’ll miss the supertitles, which are flavorful if not essential. Through August 24 at the Athenaeum at Lincoln and Southport in west Lakeview.
This new play, directed by Randall Arney, has one showy role and one subtle one–and you’ll never guess which one Petersen plays! Anyone who saw Rae Grey in The Whale at Victory Gardens will be able to guess the kind of character she plays. We anatomize the play, performances and production, and then each of us has a personal pick: Fallow at Steep Theatre (Kelly) and Bedroom Farce at Eclipse (Jonathan).
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This episode was podcast on August 2, 2013.