Reviews from the Chicago theater scene: The good and not so good

It’s been a busy theater week for me. I’ve seen two excellent plays, one very good one and two others that need work.

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Remy Bumppo Theatre

NSB_travestiesRemy Bumppo performs excellent work on its second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their production of Stoppard’s Travesties is simply brilliant and I recommend it strongly. The premise is that there is a moment in time when James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin were all in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also a moment when the world is on the brink of change. Europe is at war, revolutions loom, and decades of other wars are ahead. The era of modernism in art and culture is emerging, represented by the novels of Joyce (especially Ulysses) and the deconstructionist poetry of Tzara, the founder of the Dadaist movement. Lenin sits in the Zurich Public Library, writing and waiting.

These three geniuses may or may not have met and conversed or debated in Zurich at that time, but no matter, Stoppard makes the premise work. The character who holds the plot together is Henry Carr, an English diplomat with a substantial ego and insubstantial intellect.

Nick Sandys’ direction is spot on. The dialogue is dazzling, the entire cast is excellent, and the costuming is ravishing. Travesties runs until May 2; don’t miss it. You may see me there again.

My review in Gapers Block has also been posted on culturevulture.net and on berkshirefinearts.com.

End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse

GB-EndDaysYes, End Days is about the biblical belief in the end of days, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen. And the story is much broader than the one character who thinks the world will end on Wednesday. (Yes, she is followed around by Jesus, but . . . no, never mind.) The script is well written and the cast is very good. The production is entertaining and thought-provoking. Direction by Henry Godinez makes all the parts gel.

The best reason to see this play is to visit this new theater venue in the Irving Park neighborhood (3014 W Irving Park Rd). End Days is the first production for the Windy City Playhouse, a theater space with an excellent bar and lobby, and best of all, super-comfy seating. Really, seating is not the only reason to go but it certainly adds to the theater experience.

See my Gapers Block review of End Days and read more about the theater itself. End Days runs through Apr 26. I’m looking forward to their next production.

La Bête by David Hirson at Trap Door Theatre

NSB-trapdoorLaBeteThe talented Trap Door troupe does a fabulous job with this witty satire of theater, commerce and mediocrity. La Bête was first produced on Broadway in 1991—running 25 performances before closing. It was revived successfully in 2010 and then transferred to London.

The scene is 17th century Paris and involves the competition at court between the playwright Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) and a verbose newcomer actor/playwright named Valere. The script is written in rhyming couplets and the cast knows how to deliver the lines, thanks to superb direction by Kay Martinovich. Kevin Cox as Valere is simply outstanding. His electrifying act-one monologue is one of the treats of this theater season.

Some of Trap Door’s productions are minimal in design but the costuming and makeup in La Bête is lavish.

La Bête runs two hours, including one intermission, and you will enjoy every minute of the wordplay. It has just been extended to May 2. The tickets are cheap ($10 plus a small fee). Trap Door is located on Cortland and Paulina in Bucktown, at what was the very northern edge of the city at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Just walk down that narrow gangway to a great theater experience. And put a few bucks in the actors’ box because these performers work for nothing. And that’s a travesty.

The Upstairs Concierge by Kristoffer Diaz at Goodman Theatre

GB-UpstairsConciergeAfter describing a theater company that does brilliant work on pennies, we come to a well-funded theater company that puts on lavish productions that are turkeys. That would be Goodman Theatre and although Goodman’s productions often are excellent, they are capable of wasting a lot of money that would have funded several storefront theaters.

The Upstairs Concierge is a perfect example. The set is beautiful. The production has been workshopped and fussed over for several years, but the script is dreadful. As I said in my Gapers Block review, “The Upstairs Concierge is a farce but the witty part is missing.” My review generously gave it two stars* (Somewhat Recommended) but other reviewers gave it one star (Not Recommended). See it at your peril.

* The websites I write for don’t use stars, although the two Chicago dailies do. Theatreinchicago.com, a website that compiles reviews and information for Chicago-area productions, uses a rating system, so my reviews appear there with a rating based on a one-to-four star system or Not Recommended to Highly Recommended.

The Good Book by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson at Court Theatre

This is the same playwriting team that created the masterful An Iliad, which Court mounted twice and I found epic and moving both times. This play is an ambitious attempt to explore the roots of the Bible, its authors, sources and gender issues. It also threads two contemporary stories through the overly long performance.

The production has received mixed reviews, from somewhat to highly recommended. The friends I attended with liked the play better than I did. I felt the parts did not hold together well and one of the modern threads would have been better eliminated. One story is that of a nonbeliever, a biblical scholar and professor played by Hollis Resnik. The other is about a teenager played by Alex Weisman, committed to becoming a priest, who over time discovers that he’s gay and comes to grips with both his faith and his sexuality. The two stories don’t mesh and the latter story, in particular, doesn’t relate to the overall ambition of exploring the roots of the bible.

The Good Book runs through April 19 at Court Theatre. I didn’t review it, but check out the reviews here and decide for yourself if you want to see it.

And also…. 

In March, I saw The Apple Family Plays: Sorry and The Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. These two plays are running in repertory at Timeline Theatre through April 19. They’re both well written and performed. The plays are about politics and family but the underlying theme in both is deciding how to deal with an aging relative who may not be able to live at home much longer. The second play is particularly sad as they come to grips with the issue. It is a chance to see Chicago’s fine actor, Mike Nussbaum, on stage. At 91, he’s a dynamic performer.

 All photos courtesy of the theater companies. 

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Chicago storefronts: Great new theater

I’ve seen five plays in the last two weeks. Most of them are provocative and well-produced gems from small theater companies, generically called storefronts, although they may well be in warehouses, church basements, behind restaurants or in old neighborhood centers. They’re by far the best theater bargains in Chicago and often demonstrate quality superior to the more high-profile theaters. Here are my theater picks for today.

Vatzlav at Trap Door Theatre

NSBvatzlav_webYes, I’m always raving about this company, which produces plays mostly by eastern European dramatists. I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents. Their current show, Vatzlav by Slawomire Mrozek, pokes fun both at capitalism and authoritarian governments. Vatzlav, a former slave, is saved from an ocean disaster when he lands on a magical island where inexplicable things happen. The inhabitants include a blind old man named Oedipus, a youth who turns into a bear, a roving ukulele player, and the rich couple who own the island. Don’t try to make sense out of it; just enjoy it. The set is simple and the costumes as usual are brilliant and colorful.

Playwright Mrozek died last August in France. He was often referred to as the Polish Ionesco and his work is compared to that of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Vatzlav runs thru May 24 at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland.

Director Beata Pilch, whose bio says she was born in the Polish district of Chicago, is founder and artistic director of Trap Door. The company has been invited to Poland to work with Teatr Witkacy and they’re raising funds for the trip. You can donate here.

The Doll’s House Project: Ibsen Is Dead at Interrobang Theatre Project

NSB-IbsenHenrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, published in 1879 and premiered in English in 1889, is now considered a groundbreaking piece of modern drama. It explores gender politics, scandals and marital relationships, and it brought realism to theater, when most were staging traditional costume drama. Calamity West’s new play is inspired by Ibsen’s but it’s not an adaptation. Nora in the original is the first dissatisfied housewife—84 years before Bette Friedan’s book explained the problem to us.

In the new version, Nora is a stay-at-home housewife, dominated by her successful husband Torvald, who doles out her allowance sparingly and monitors her activities. Her main job is recreational shopping. So far, like Ibsen. The new play is set in Manhattan in 1989 on the day the Berlin Wall fell. An old friend of Nora’s arrives to visit and the play veers away from the Ibsen version. The memories and tensions between Nora and Christine are the highlight of the play, while Torvald and the neighbor doctor circle around them and spar over Nora’s affections. The performers are excellent and director Jim Yost keeps the 90-minute play snapping along. The script still needs some work; there are parts that are slow and some of the dialogue seems dated.

The idea of Nora as a rich stay-at-home wife was dated in 1989, unless you moved in the circles of high-powered lawyers, financiers and consultants. In those worlds (where I worked as a marketing minion in those years), the rich stay-at-home dabbler wife was the standard. I met dozens of them at partner meetings. I couldn’t figure out how they spent their time. Recreational shopping, most likely.

The Doll’s House Project runs thru June 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Cock at Profiles Theatre

NSBslide_cocksCock is a play title you very rarely find in a review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear over internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.

The setting is London in the present but the set mimics a small arena where cock-fighting might take place. The floor is covered with fake gravel; the arena is surrounded by a low iron wall.  The characters frequently take positions at opposite sides, as if about to face off. In the first half, new scenes are signaled with a bell like the start of a new boxing round; after blackouts, the characters open new scenes in attack pose. The set design and the production vigorously directed by Darrell Cox make clear that the title refers to several meanings of the word, including adult male chickens and gunlocks, in addition to the male anatomy.

The actors create an intense atmosphere, which is enhanced by the intimate space. (The audience sits in tiered wooden stalls with cushions provided at the door.) The semi-comfortable seats and the tension among characters mean that 80 minutes is about the most one can tolerate of this drama that forces John to, finally, make a choice.

Cock runs thru June 29 at Profiles Theatre, 4139 N Broadway.

The Way West at Steppenwolf Theatre

NSBwaywest_large_nowplaying2Mona Mansour’s play seems to celebrate America’s pioneer spirit and our western expansion, but ends up in personal bankruptcies in 21st century Los Angeles. The family members—a mother and two daughters—have each in her own way found a way to financial ruin. Mom just quit paying her bills, is ignoring her illness, and believes everything will be ok. The older daughter has taken time off from her job in Chicago to help her mom sort thru her records and file bankruptcy. Her younger sister cares for her mother and has gone from job to job; she is in much the same financial shape as her mother. The older sister at first seems like the responsible one, but after she loses her job (learning about it by voice mail), everything falls apart for her too.

The story line is right out of 2008 and could be stronger with a more tightly edited script. The unfortunate musical interludes with western songs by the mother, accompanied by her daughters on guitars, are strange breaks in the action that just don’t work. (The wagon train and  campfire projections behind the performers only increase the silliness.)

The Way West runs two hours plus intermission and can be seen thru June 8 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. It’s one of the few times in my 20+ years as a Steppenwolf subscriber that I’ve been disappointed by a production.

More theater news: Expansion project for The Den Theatre and The Hypocrites 

The Hypocrites, one of my favorite small theaters, will be leaving their claustrophobic basement space at Chopin Theatre and moving into a new space nearby on Milwaukee avenue that’s being taken over by The Den Theatre. The Den, another of my faves, currently has several performance spaces at 1333 N Milwaukee over a large empty retail space. They’re taking over that space and it will be the new home of The Hypocrites. It’s a great story for Chicago theater and for the Wicker Park neighborhood. You can read more about it in my article at Gapers Block.


Arts & culture heat up Chiberia: 4 plays to see

Chicago had two days of almost-spring with temps above 40 last week but now winter is back in force. I just spent a few days in North Carolina, where their eight inches of snow melted very quickly. While I was there, we had three 60-degree/no-jacket days. Meanwhile, there have been lots of theater openings recently. Here are a few plays I’ve seen that you might enjoy too

In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer at Saint Sebastian Players

SSP-JRobertOppenheimer-GBYes, it’s talky and intellectual and it makes you think. Thinking might warm up your head. This three-hour play by the German writer Heinar Kipphardt leads us thru the Atomic Energy Commission hearing that resulted in Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” being stripped of his security clearance. This production by the Saint Sebastian Players is very good, despite some actorly flaws. The main characters are portrayed very well and the pace is engrossing. The play runs until March 9. See my Gapers Block review here, along with ticket and location details.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Porchlight Music Theatre

Porchlight_Rush-WassIn the mood for some stride piano playing, lively singing and dancing by five charismatic performers to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller? Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue by Porchlight Music Theatre, is terrific and I don’t even like musicals. It’s sure to win plenty of Jeff awards.

My Gapers Block review noted that this is Porchlight’s contribution to Black History Month:  a musical revue and tribute to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller and the Harlem Renaissance. “Fats himself would be proud of this production, performed at Stage 773 with an excellent live band led by über-pianist Austin Cook.” See my review for all the logistics and production details

Crime and Punishment at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

If you never managed to finish the Dostoyevsky book in high school or college, here’s your chance to gain a new appreciation for the character Raskolnikov and the theme of crime and guilt. Here’s how my Gapers Block review started: “Mary-Arrchie Theatre takes on a difficult task in staging this 2003 adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, Crime and Punishment. But with intelligent direction by Richard Cotovsky, this talented and respected off-Loop theater gives the audience a gripping 90 minutes. We meet Raskolnikov (a strong performance by Ed Porter), the poor, sickly, arrogant former law student who commits the crime, suffers guilt and psychological trauma and, finally, punishment.”

The script is the same one presented in 2003 by Writers Theatre in Glencoe on their tiny back-of-the-bookstore stage, with Scott Parkinson doing a superb job playing Raskolnikov. The novel was adapted into a play by two Chicago playwrights–Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus. The Mary-Arrchie play runs until March 16.

Judith: A Parting of the Body at Trap Door Theatre

judith1-1024x678Trap Door’s excellent production of Judith: A Parting of the Body by Howard Barker is a revisionist take on the biblical story of the Israelite widow who goes to the enemy camp to seduce General Holofernes. The language is poetic and sometimes vulgar. The three actors each play out their stories in an engrossing way.

You’ll remember the image, even if the story is not familiar. There are many famous versions of the painting often titled “Judith with the Head of Holofernes”; the one by Artemisia Gentileschi may be best known. But I have always liked the Caravaggio version best. You can see it on this Wikipedia page.

Judith has been extended so you can see it at Trap Door, the little theater space at the end of a gangway at 1650 W Cortland, until March 8.

Tribes at Steppenwolf Theatre

Tribes by Nina Raine recently ended its run at Steppenwolf. We saw it near the end of the run since we had to change our tickets from one of the deep-freeze days. The reviews of this play were mixed, varying from “somewhat ” to “highly recommended.” The story is about a family with one deaf son, who leaves the family cocoon and discovers the outside world and the deaf community. The theme isn’t new—the controversy over the benefits of sign language vs. lip-reading for the deaf–and it still demands our attention. I really wanted to like the play, but I found most of the characters unlikable and the play failed to keep me from checking my watch to see when I could leave.

And also . . . .

rapeofeuropaA film recommendation. In case you, like me, were disappointed in the reviews for The Monuments Men and decided not to see it, I’d like to recommend a good documentary that tells the story and even includes some of the real Monuments Men. The Rape of Europa, 2006, was written and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, with narration by Joan Allen. 117 minutes. Streaming on Netflix.

The film is drawn from the book of the same title by Lynn H Nicholas, who appears in the film; her book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994. One of the co-producers is Robert M Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men, from which the current film is adapted.

An example of transitivity. Did you know that the song, “The St Louis Blues” got its name from a street, not from the Missouri city? Ann K Powers, the NPR music critic, posted a photo on her Facebook page of a memorial plaque in Bessemer, Alabama. The W C Handy song, “Pipeshop Blues” was also known as the “St Louis Blues” for St Louis Avenue, the street that ran through the Howard-Harrison Steel Company of Bessemer.

When I shared the image on my Facebook timeline, my economist son observed that this is an example of the mathematical concept of transitivity, which is

A relation among three elements. If it holds between the first and second elements and it also holds between the second and third, it must necessarily hold between the first and third.

Could this be four-part transitivity? The song was named after a street, which was named after a city, which was named after a French king and saint, Saint Louis himself, King Louis IX of France. So song, street, city, saint.

*    *    *

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Theater reviews and reveries

Chicago theaters are opening new shows in January and February, so after a slow December, I’ll be reviewing lots of theater again. Here are a few current highlights.

Our Country’s Good

OCG-4This play by Shattered Globe Theatre is being presented at Theater Wit on Belmont. The historical subject matter of the play—prisoners and their English soldier-captors in the new Australian penal colony in 1788—is fascinating. The play by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker also involves a play within a play performed by the convicts. Many interesting possibilities, but the play ultimately is a bit flat. I was disappointed because Shattered Globe usually does sterling work. My Gapers Block review notes some of the problems.

It’s possible that the director could take notes from some of the reviews and snap up the production, however. The show runs thru February 22, so if the subject matter interests you, check it out. (Image courtesy Shattered Globe Theatre.)

Mr Shaw Goes to Hollywood

This is a smart, funny play with lots of celebrity name-dropping and appearances by GBS and Clark Gable. I haven’t posted my Gapers Block review yet, so I won’t go into more reviewer details here. But I will tell you it’s by MadKap Productions at the second floor studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center thru February 16.

Update:  here’s my Gapers Block review.  I gave it a Recommended rating for theatreinchicago.com.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck

blood-on-the-cat_tThis was another sparkling production by Trap Door Theatre, pulling out crazy visual magic on their tiny stage. The play is closed now, but I will only say: Watch for the next Trap Door production. They do plays mainly by European playwrights and they always have a political/social edge reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck is by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German film innovator who died of a drug overdose at 36 in 1982, ten years after writing this play. Blood plays out in three parts; it’s part monologue, part short scenes, and it ends with a mad party scene. The character we follow with most interest is Phoebe Zeitgeist (played by Simina Contras), a vampire from another planet. She’s completely naked throughout, except for a hat, gloves, heels and glittery red lipstick. She has a fixed smile and repeats the other characters’ slogans and complaints, without seeming to know what they mean. The party scene ends with Phoebe doing what vampires do – to each character in turn. (Image courtesy Trap Door Theatre.)

Invisible Man at Court Theatre and on the page

imagesCourt Theatre presented Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man two years ago. The play was marvelous, compelling but confusing. I left feeling dissatisfied, wishing I had read the book before seeing the play. Now I’ve read the book (my book group had an excellent discussion on it) and I would love to see the play again. I think it would be more dramatic and meaningful.

Ellison is a lyrical writer, influenced by jazz as a musical form. He tells the story of a nameless young man who leaves a Southern black college to go to New York where he experiences northern racism and bigotry in the course of making a living and making human contact. He is a talented, even charismatic, speaker and becomes a spokesman for a white-led political organization called the Brotherhood where he is tasked to recruit in Harlem. Ellison was a Marxist for a while so the Brotherhood is probably patterned after the Communist party. The character makes us understand why he is invisible and how social and political racism affect him. The book is structured episodically and sometimes requires flipping back to reread an earlier section. Ellison’s writing is rewarding, however, and the book is a wonderful read.

Theatre in Chicago website

I want to recommend this website as a resource for Chicago theater-goers. It’s a very good way to find out what plays are showing now and what reviewers are saying. To see the compilations of reviews, go to the home page and select Review Round-Up in the left-hand column. My Gapers Block reviews are now appearing there.

There are sister sites in other cities: Minneapolis, Boston, DC, Seattle, LA, Atlanta and San Francisco. You can find links to those pages in the footer at theatreinchicago.com.

Related posts

Read about the two plays I recommend hereThe Seafarer runs until February 1.  An Inspector Calls just closed.


Theater feast: Four plays in four days and more

Whether I’m reviewing for Gapers Block or not, I revel in seeing a lot of plays. On one recent weekend, I went to the theater four nights in a row. And then more the next week. Here’s a recap of my recent theater feast. Most of these plays are still showing, so get thee to a theater!

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey at Remy Bumppo Theatre at Greenhouse Theatre Center; through November 10.

The Jane Austen play gets a delightful, charming and funny presentation by the reliably solid Remy Bumppo. The set is used wisely; costumes are simple and elegant. Outstanding performances by Sarah Price as Catherine Morland and Greg Mathew Anderson double cast as Valancourt and Henry Tilney are supported by a uniformly excellent cast.  It’s particularly fun to see Catherine’s love of books and her reader’s imagination translated into stage action. Thoroughly enjoyable.

 The Wheel

Zinnie Harris’ The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre; through November 10.

The reviews of this play are mixed to say the least. Of nine reviews, only one is highly recommended; the others are somewhat recommended or recommended. One of my neighbors warned me it was “dreadful.” So of course I went to the theater with low expectations … and was wowed.

Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1973,_MiNr_1852

1973 German stamp commemorating Berliner Ensemble production;  Wikimedia Commons

The play is directed by Tina Landau and stars Joan Allen, an original Steppenwolf ensemble member. And yes, it’s a sprawling mess as Beatriz (Allen) leaves northern Spain to wander the world from war to war, from century to century, with two children in tow, trying to find their parents. Sound a little familiar? Yes, it’s Brechtian and a little reminiscent of his masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children, written about the Thirty Years War.

There’s some magical realism, of course, and the events of the play make us ask moral and ethical questions of ourselves. The dialog is clever and evocative and the occasional music by the actors themselves adds a great deal. Plus it’s always a pleasure to see Yasen Peyankov on stage. Tim Hopper and LaShawn Banks also do excellent jobs, as do the two children. At the end, Beatriz is back in Spain, but the wheel keeps turning and she finds herself facing the same problems. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play.

The Goddess

Paddy Chayefsky’s The Goddess at The Artistic Home; through November 17

thegoddess1958poster

1958 movie poster

My Gapers Block review of The Goddess was just posted. The play concerns the childhood, dramatic rise and fall of a doomed blonde movie star. Chayefsky says he wasn’t writing it about Marilyn Monroe but it might have been Kim Stanley. The play is a bit choppy but the performances are excellent. The costumes are gorgeous and worth the price of the ticket alone. Artistic Home, at 1376 W. Grand Ave., helps Chicago deserve its rep as the home of great storefront theater. The 1958 movie starred Kim Stanley and Lloyd Bridges.

The Balcony and 12 Nights

Jean Genet’s The Balcony at Trap Door Theatre; closed October 12. Not Exactly Shakespeare’s 12 Nights at The Hypocrites; closed October 6.

These are two of my very favorite small theaters. Both are amazingly inventive. I always look forward to their productions.

balcony_web

The Balcony cover design

Trap Door comes out of the legacy of European Repertory Theatre, the late lamented theater of the 1990s. For both ensembles, many of its members are or were European born or trained. I still remember how the ERC production of Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon sent shivers up my spine. Trap Door chooses European classic and contemporary scripts and performs them with great wit and panache in a tiny space. The Balcony, set in a brothel and making fun of politics and society, is a great example of their work.

The Hypocrites is reliably crazy, quirky and never boring. Sean Graney, the former artistic director, created and directed 12 Nights out of Shakespeare and a few other sources. His work is literate, witty and imaginative. The new artistic director, Halena Kays, is a worthy successor. Her production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of Author was imaginative and riveting.

What’s up next

Next week I’m reviewing two openings:

  • Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at Eclectic Theatre
  • Good Thing by Jessica Goldberg at Poor Theatre

I’m taking my grandson James to see William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, part of Steppenwolf’s young adult series, this weekend. More on that later.

I want to see Killer Angels, a Civil War play by Michael Shaara, at Lifeline Theater through November 24.

And Trevor by Nick Jones is a dark comedy about a chimp. It’s at A Red Orchid Theatre through December 1.