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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Date with a diva: Interview with E Faye Butler & other theater news

Recently I reviewed the new Goodman Theatre production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play with many Chekhovian and other theatrical references. I thought it was very good but regretted the fact that Goodman has been promoting it as a slaphappy summer comedy. That means the audience members think they have to be entertained and therefore find every line absolutely hilarious. As I said in my review:

“Durang’s treatment certainly contains much wit and draws the fine line between comedy and tragedy, but the opening night audience’s raucous laughter throughout both acts weakened the poignancy of the characters’ stories. Really, this isn’t the Marx Brothers.”

GB-Cassandra-EFayeButler

The Goodman publicity team was offering actor interviews and I was asked if I would like to interview one of the lead actors. After seeing the play, I said, “No, I want to interview the actor who played Cassandra. I want to hear her story about how she created her character.” And so one morning last week, I went back to the Goodman Theatre with my tape recorder (my iPhone actually) and a set of questions to ask E. Faye Butler.

I don’t do interviews often, because they’re time consuming and can end up being bland if the subject is afraid of sounding undignified. But E Faye was fabulous. She’s a classically trained actor who also sings and has a powerful voice and a magnetic persona. She is smart, articulate and funny and was absolutely the best interview I’ve done. Turning her recorded interview into an interesting story was easy. At least I think it’s interesting and I hope you do.

Here’s my date with the diva. My reviews of VSMS also appeared here and here.

Review: Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre

GB-Steep-Brilliant (1)Last week I reviewed the new gritty British drama at Steep Theatre. It’s a US premiere of a play by Alistair McDowall, a new English playwright. Excellent play, directed by Robin Witt, with a group of six fine actors. The fascinating thing about Brilliant Adventures is that it starts out like one of those 1970s British working class films, but then devolves into sci-fi and fantasy. Really, it’s fascinating and it works.

As I said in my review, “It is a deeply classist play that explores the lives of those who live in Middlesbrough, a failed industrial city on the River Tees in northeast England.” The Steep playbill and the lobby exhibits do a good job of acquainting you with the environment and language of Middlesbrough.

Brilliant Adventures is an outstanding two hours of theater and I recommend it. You can see it through August 15. Steep is located on Berwyn, just east of the Berwyn Red Line station. You can also see my review here.

Review: Ring of Fire at the Mercury Theatre

GB-Ring of Fire-Goodrich,GoodmanI also had a chance to review the Johnny Cash musical tribute in its extension through the end of August. (I missed it when it first opened this spring.) I went with friends who are music lovers like me and fans of rock, blues, bluegrass and country). June Sawyers has written dozens of books about music and musicians. It was a treat to see the show with two music fans and discuss the music at intermission and afterwards.

We all agreed it’s a great piece of entertainment but we thought it lacked the depth that the tortured story of Johnny Cash’s life would have added. But no, it’s strictly a jukebox musical with about 30 songs by Cash and other songwriters performed by a talented group of seven musicians.

Here’s a song from the show that was often performed by Johnny Cash but it was written by Geoff Mack (an Australian) and Hank Snow (who wrote the North American lyrics). I describe the lyrics as a tongue-twister travel itinerary. This is a Hank Snow version from 1965.

The Mercury Theatre is a comfortable venue with an excellent sound system. Ring of Fire is a pleasant evening of entertainment in the same way that Million Dollar Quartet is. But even that play is built around some narrative elements.

My Gapers Block review is posted now. You can read it here.