It’s October Madness again, that month that drives me crazy because a year’s worth of special events, festivals and conferences are scheduled and I can’t do and see everything I want to do and see. Ideas Week, Open House Chicago, Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Architecture Biennial (at least it continues through the rest of the year), Chicago International Film Festival (and several other film festivals). On top of all those things, this year we have baseball in October too!
Here are a few review recaps of plays I think you’ll appreciate. They’re all still on stage.
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre thru November 14
This tragic story of nine Alabama boys who were falsely accused of a crime that was never committed is told in scalding language and vaudeville performances. The case became a cause celebre in the 1930s and was an early predictor for the civil rights movement that finally erupted 30 years later. The ironic combination of verisimilitude and satire makes for a production that is heart-wrenching, funny and sad. Each of the nine talented actors who play the Scottsboro boys also put on masks to perform as characters in the various trials that ensue. When a black actor puts on white-face, it adds a certain richness and depth to the irony.
Direct from Death Row is an important and riveting production by the always-reliable Raven Theatre. I didn’t review the production; you can see a compilation of reviews here.
No Beast So Fierce by Oracle Productions thru November 8
Oracle Production refers to itself as public-access theater. Its tickets are always free and they rely on donors for sustenance. Oracle does excellent work, so I hope this theater model continues to work for them. Their regular performance venue is on North Broadway; this show is being staged at the Storefront Theater on Randolph Street. No Beast So Fierce is less than successful, partly because it compresses the original Shakespearean script to 90 minutes. However, it offers many tense moments and compelling performances. It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III by the director, Max Truax, and it’s also notable for starring a woman as Richard. The acting is generally very good and Katherine Keberlein, who plays Richard, looks regal and delivers her lines beautifully. Keberlein plays Richard as a woman fighting for control in a male world but she lacks the fierceness and evil strength that we expect to see in actors playing Richard.
The staging and original music add a great deal to No Beast So Fierce and all in all, it’s a play worth seeing. See my full review here.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Theater Wit thru November 14
I’m sure I will put this production on my Best-of-2015 list. It’s smart, funny, fast-moving and insightful about the impact of technology on modern life and love. Theater Wit’s production, directed by Jeremy Wechsler, si excellent and all three actors are superb. Joe Foust, who stars as four Watsons (see my review to sort that out) is absolutely terrific. The action moves so fast and the actors tear around so quickly, putting on and removing layers of costume, that your head may spin. Even if there are moments that go by so fast that you miss a line here and there, don’t fret. But do see this brilliantly written and performed play.
Love and Information at Remy Bumppo Theatre thru November 1
Love and Information is another play that moves quickly with many short–some very short–scenes. It too reflects and builds on our technology obsessions, as well as touching our memories and paranoia. It’s one of the newest plays by the acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose work is always interesting, but not always emotionally rich. She has been called the David Bowie of contemporary theater because she constantly reinvents her approach to playwriting. I would compare her to Richard Powers, the American novelist whose work I have praised here often. They’re both literary/intellectual writers whose work brims with challenging ideas but whose characters do not swoop you up in a paroxysm of emotion.
Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo creates an intriguing 90 minutes with this production. See my review.
Disgraced at Goodman Theatre thru October 25
Playwright Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for this play, which generally receives excellent reviews from critics and sometimes divides audiences. My review acknowledged that award and then added, “But that doesn’t mean you won’t be squirming in your seat in mental discomfort as the 85-minute play progresses. The play tackles questions of Islamaphobia, Muslim-American identity and identity politics in general. The smartly written script offers equal-opportunity political incorrectness, something to offend everyone.”
Whether you agree with it or are offended at some point during the 80-minute play, I don’t think you’ll be bored.
East of Eden at Steppenwolf Theatre thru November 15
This Frank Galati adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel is gripping, even at its three-hour length, with excellent acting and a deceptively simple but beautifully designed setting. I suspect Steppenwolf intends this play to have a second life on Broadway (as did the Galati/Steppenwolf production of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1988), but the script needs work before a move east. To me, Galati tried to cram too much of the long and dense novel into the script, which means some things happen offstage or without explanation and some characters are not fully developed. I would like to see the father-sons relationship built up because it is the heart of the story and of the biblical references to the Cain and Abel story.
Those are my notes for the company. Despite that, i highly recommend this play for a fulfilling and thought-provoking theater evening. One of my Gapers Block colleagues reviewed the play.