Summer Theater Thrives; Recent Reviews

Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Who said theater was dead in the summer? Chicago’s theaters, storefront, midsize and large, have active summer seasons. These are some of the plays I’ve seen and reviewed in the last few weeks. They’re all still running, so you have time to see something wonderful.

Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre

Taylor Mac’s script for Hir (pronounced “here”) is brilliant, wordy and fast-moving. It’s a startling play, as I said in my headline, because the publicity makes you think it’s all about sexuality and gender identity. But it’s about much more than that. Terrific acting and a set that will make you happy to go home to your relatively neat living room. Director Hallie Gordon has some of Chicago’s finest actors to work with and she takes full advantage of their talent in the pacing and mood of this play. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours.

Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum 

Megastasis‘ title is odd and never really explained well in the script, but ignore that, because this play is terrific, terrifying and informative. Yes, really informative. The playwright takes the time to have characters explain what’s happening to young black men because of mandatory minimum sentencing, changes in drug laws, asset forfeiture, and parole restrictions. The story is about Tray, a young man trying hard to make a life for himself and his baby daughter, while living with his grandfather. A couple of small mistakes (like buying a few joints) get him in trouble that results in a long prison term. It’s a wonderful and disturbing human story. My review. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours, one intermission.

Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre

Lela is a woman disrupted and betrayed by the men in her life. It’s an unsettling and searing performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, in a play that the playwright calls a monologue. But the men keep appearing to interrupt her and change the course of her difficult life in an eastern European war zone. Read my review and see this show before it closes on 8/19; running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.

At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre. Photo by Matthew Freer

At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre

My review of At the Table mentions that it might remind you superficially of The Big Chill, but the conversation goes much deeper than that 1983 film. Act one is chatty, sometimes contentious, as we get acquainted with the diverse group of friends. Then, “scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.” You can see At the Table–and you should see it–through 8/26. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.

How to Be a Rock Critic (From the Writings of Lester Bangs) at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre

This is a terrific one-man show where Erik Jensen takes on the persona of iconic rock music critic Lester Bangs and invites us into his messy, drug- and cough-syrup ridden musical nightmare life. I reviewed this with one of my colleagues and we had fun with it. Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, are co-playwrights in this adaptation; she’s the director. They are a formidable pair. Runs only through Saturday 7/29; running time 90 minutes.

The Nance at Pride Films and Plays

There’s a lot of silly burlesque comedy plus bubbly dancing girls in The Nance, but there’s substance too, as my review notes. The story is about a middle-aged gay man who performs “the nance act” at a 1930s New York burlesque theater at a time when the same activity in real life would put him in jail for illegal homosexual activity. It’s a time of change in burlesque theater and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to tell us about the actions of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his licensing commissioner–and the response of the theater community.  Runs through August 13; running time 2.5 hours.

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Storefront theaters shine in Chicago

I’ve been seeing a lot of theater lately and I wanted to post my last three reviews for Gapers Block.  Two of these shows close in the next week, so hurry up and see them. We have an unbelievable wealth of theater talent in Chicago. These plays are worth your time – and these small theaters will appreciate your support.

My next post will get out of Chicago and report on my visit to New York, featuring one off- and one on-Broadway show.

Mahal at Bailiwick Chicago: It’s a Family Affair

Mahal by Danny Bernardo is a story about a Chicago Filipino family, the first play with that ethnic focus, to my knowledge. Bailiwick Chicago is presenting it at Stage 773 at 1225 W Belmont, formerly the Theater Building. The Stage 773 owners have upgraded the space, especially the entrance and lobby area, to be very attractive and contemporary—a great improvement.

Mahal-2My review begins:

Mahal is a family story. A Filipino family with strong roots in the Philippines adjusts to life, love and loss in its new country. The family members – father, two sons and a daughter – are each recovering in their own way from the recent death of their mother. (Some family members call the mother’s phone number to hear her voicemail greeting – and leave messages for her until the mailbox fills up.)”

Bailiwick Chicago presents Mahal until August 2 at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. Read the review here.   Photo of Kevin Keyes and Jillian Jocson by Michael Brosilow.

The Casuals at Jackalope Theatre: Exploring Life in the Atomic Era 

The Casuals is set in 1955 Nevada and involves personal as well as political issues. It’s a new play by Jackalope Theatre Company with script by Chance Bone and Andrew Burden Swanson, and direction by Jonathan Berry. Here’s how my review starts:

TheCasuals-GB“Some things about The Casuals might make you uncomfortable–nuclear testing, for instance. Government agencies that hide the truth (and insist you don’t ask questions). Stories that may be lies or truth. A mother who tells her son how his father died a hero. An uncle who tells his nephew’s wife how his brother really died.”

The Casuals runs until July 28 at DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolph St. Tickets are cheap: $10-$15.

Read the review here.  Photo by Alex Hand: Watching an atomic test.

Rooms: A Rock Romance at Broken Nose Theatre

I hardly ever get to indulge my love for rock and roll at the theater. So I was very excited to get to review this show, which includes a scene set at CBGB, the famous New York rock club. Rooms features a talented live band and some straight-up rock as well as a little punk.  My review starts this way:

IanGuitar-Rooms-GB“The sign outside the theater says, “This is a rock musical. It will be loud.” And it starts loud with a four-piece rock band playing preshow music including the classic ‘Seven Nights to Rock.’

“Rooms: A Rock Romance is a fairly traditional musical, punctuated by some great rock and punk rock songs performed on stage with a band. It is, at its heart, a love story about two people with different visions of life. Monica (Hillary Marren) wants to be a rock star, to travel and perform all over the world and Ian (Matt Deitchman) is a musician who prefers to stay at home in his own room with his guitar.”

Broken Nose Theatre will present Rooms until August 11 at the Collaboraction Pentagon space in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Read my review here. Photo of Matt Deitchman by Taryn Goodge.

Broken Nose Theatre, by the way, takes its name from the way Nelson Algren describes my favorite city in his book, Chicago: City on the Make.

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”