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After the Dance, End of the Rainbow, and ten more new theater reviews

A Chicago premiere from Runcible and another success from Porchlight are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] After the Dance This 1939 drawing-room drama by British writer Terence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables) concerns dissolute middle-aged socialites David and Joan Scott-Fowler, whose marriage seems to be a model of fashionable frivolity until David falls in love with his young cousin's fiancee, with tragic results. Not one of Rattigan's best works, the play is nonetheless an effective period piece—a portrait of carefree "bright young things" of the 1920s as they ungracefully age while their world slips inexorably toward another world war. Runcible Theatre Company's intimate staging (apparently the script's Chicago premiere) features strong performances under Andrew Root's direction. With his quick, nervous smile, Layne Manzer is especially compelling as the conflicted David, a weak, shallow, privileged alcoholic torn between his loyalty to his wife and the new sense of purpose he finds in his romance with a younger woman. —Albert Williams

Interrobang Theatre's The Amish Project - GREGG GILMAN
  • Gregg Gilman
  • Interrobang Theatre's The Amish Project

The Amish Project A decade ago last month Charles Roberts walked into the Amish school at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, took ten little girls hostage, and shot them all before killing himself. His act might've been considered a run-of-the-mill post-Columbine atrocity if not for the Amish community's response. They forgave Roberts and treated his widow and children with kindness. In Jessica Dickey's "fictional exploration of a true event," a solo actor plays seven characters, including versions of the gunman, the widow, a scholar, two non-Amish women, and two of the victims. Though the 75-minute piece occupies a problematic limbo between fact and imagining, it can be intensely moving. Sarah Gise gets us only part of the way there. As directed by David Connelly for Interrobang Theatre, Gise's physical work is interesting; her vocal range is too limited, however, to yield convincingly differentiated characters. —Tony Adler

First Floor Theater's Deer and the Lovers - IAN MCLAREN
  • Ian McLaren
  • First Floor Theater's Deer and the Lovers

Deer and the Lovers The first act of Emily Zemba's play wants to be a farce with absurdist overtones, about a lovey-dovey young couple whose country-house getaway is wrecked when (a) they discover a dead deer in the living room, (b) relatives show up uninvited, and (c) nasty secrets come out. The second act turns into a sort of horror-movie version of A Midsummer Night's Dream as everybody takes to the woods. The two parts might coexist, and possibly entertain, despite Zemba's endless preoccupation with the fact that "deer" and "dear" sound alike. But not in Jesse Roth's staging for First Floor Theater. Failing to understand that even silly behavior should make internal sense, Roth tries to build comedy on free-floating wackiness. The result isn't laughs but puzzlement: Why are these people acting this way? —Tony Adler

Halcyon Theatre's Dirty Butterfly - EMILY WILSON
  • Emily Wilson
  • Halcyon Theatre's Dirty Butterfly

[Recommended] Dirty Butterfly When T. S. Eliot's friend Conrad Aiken congratulated him effusively on the publication of Poems 1909-1925, Eliot responded in rebuke with a clipping from a journal for nurses and midwives in which he'd underlined the words "blood, mucus, shreds of mucus, purulent offensive discharge." Debbie Tucker Green's Dirty Butterfly, making its American debut at Halcyon Theatre in a coproduction with the Blind Owl, is concerned overtly with the discharge, the blood, vomit, mucus, and urine, of its main character. Jo (Leah Raidt), whose powers of allure are almost supernatural, is in a loud, violent relationship that keeps neighbors Amelia (Genevieve VenJohnson) and Jason (Reginald Robinson Jr.) awake in their West End flats. As they each become obsessed with her—Amelia possessed by the desire to clean up after her both figuratively and literally, voyeuristic Jason by the desire to "save" Jo—it becomes clear she's being brutalized so badly in bed that she's bleeding internally and may die. Sensitively directed by Azar Kazemi, Dirty Butterfly is as memorable and profound as it is brutal. —Max Maller

Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead - COURTESY ECLECTIC THEATRE CO.
  • Courtesy Eclectic Theatre Co.
  • Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead

Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead It's hard to overstate just how angsty Bert V. Royal's 2004 unauthorized Peanuts parody really is. For a start, consider that Blink-182's "Adam's Song" is in the preshow song rotation for this Eclectic Theatre production. Charlie Brown (here "CB") mourns his dead rabies-infected dog and ponders mortality; the Lucy character is in prison for homicidal arson, while "Beethoven" (i.e., Schroeder) is a sex-abuse victim and the target of the self-loathingly closeted Matt (i.e., Pig-Pen). Royal's script is so preoccupied with young-adult themes—eating disorders, depression, drug use, homophobia, self-harm—that it feels sophomoric itself, lacking the self-awareness required to make much out of the dark comedy. There is, however, palpable energy to this unevenly cast ensemble of young actors directed by David Belew; Kirk Osgood in particular creates some undeniably emotion-packed moments as CB. —Dan Jakes

Porchlight Music Theatre's End of the Rainbow - KELSEY JORISSEN
  • Kelsey Jorissen
  • Porchlight Music Theatre's End of the Rainbow

[Recommended] End of the Rainbow Up to a point it may be possible to think of Judy Garland's life as the stuff of drama. But by the end of 1968, just six months ahead of her fatal OD, the only thing left was a downward slide as sure as physics. All the more credit to playwright Peter Quilter and this Porchlight Music Theatre production, then, for making the inevitable so startling. Garland is a puree of need suspended in wobbly aspic: married to her final husband and strung out on you-name-it as she tries to cover her debts with a six-week stand at a London nightclub. Angela Ingersoll shows us the icon's indomitability amid utter collapse, even as she displays her own diva-level chops. You're simultaneously relieved and enraptured every time she makes it through a song. Jon Steinhagen is more modestly powerful as Garland's accompanist. —Tony Adler

About Face Theatre's I Am My Own Wife - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • About Face Theatre's I Am My Own Wife

I Am My Own Wife Doug Wright's clunky, disjointed Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner presents isolated fragments from the singular life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a cross-dressing German antiques collector who survived Nazi and Communist oppression in sensible heels. Wright unwisely makes himself a central character in the play, dramatizing his struggles to cobble together her story (oh no, another grant ran out!) as though they matter beside her travails. Unwiser still, he spends nearly two hours venerating her courageous, eccentric life only to suggest she may have made most of it up. Although the play was written as a one-person show, director Andrew Volkoff casts four actors for this "reimagined" About Face revival—an improvement insofar as the 40-something characters aren't all stuck in the same dress. Transgender actor Delia Kropp's measured, mystifying turn as Von Mahlsdorf saves the evening. 
—Justin Hayford

In De Beginnin' First produced at the Body Politic in 1978, Oscar Brown Jr.'s witty and wise musical adaptation of Genesis 1-3 has a lively score and memorable lyrics that put African-American dialect to playful use. Sadly, much of the show's glory is muted in this staging from ETA Creative Arts, marred by awkward pacing, unnecessary miking, and sound-flattening synthesizer that robs the score of the jazzy richness an acoustic piano would provide. Still, the production, directed by Kemati J. Porter, has its fine points: Fania Bourn, a fetching Eve with a glorious voice, easily steals the show, and Barton Fitzpatrick gracefully embodies the Old Testament creator, one minute merciful, the next full of thunder and fury. —Jack Helbig

UrbanTheater Company's La Gringa - ANTHONY AICARDI
  • Anthony Aicardi
  • UrbanTheater Company's La Gringa

[Recommended] La Gringa Playwright Carmen Rivera still-relevant identity-crisis comedy was first staged in 1990, well before the accelerated economic and population crises straining Puerto Rico's workforce today. A young New Yorker (Sofia Tew) visits her extended family in Las Piedras, whom she discovers are none too impressed by her enthusiastic but uninformed claim to being an "authentic" Puerto Rican. With joy in its heart, Miranda Gonzalez's UrbanTheater Company production reflects on what it means to feel a connection to a culture; though the blocking in the tight storefront space can be a little awkward, Gonzalez's ensemble radiates loving vibes at a time when they're few and far between. —Dan Jakes

The House Theatre of Chicago's Nutcracker - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • The House Theatre of Chicago's Nutcracker

[Recommended] The Nutcracker The House Theatre's playful and irreverent version of E.T.A. Hoffman's famous story begins with the news of tragedy; from there, Christmas is nearly canceled, but it's the very threat of loss that imbues the holiday with meaning. Kids and grown-ups will be charmed by Clara (Ariana Burks) and her talking toys as they defeat the Rat King—a symbolic defeat of fear and death's obliterating spell—rekindling the season's celebratory spirit. With puppetry and other effects, this singular production is perfectly set in Chopin's small, circular space, and while the songs feel a bit ancillary, the onstage orchestra is impressive. It's a smart, layered, and very modern take on a classic tale. —Suzanne Scanlon

Curious Theatre Branch's One Boppa: Two Acts - JEFFREY BIVENS
  • Jeffrey Bivens
  • Curious Theatre Branch's One Boppa: Two Acts

One Boppa: Two Acts Playwright Beau O'Reilly's latest offering is about three dysfunctional sisters struggling to make sense of their dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional world. Julia Williams plays the put-together one—though her calculated, logical interface with life may in its own way be a kind of insanity. Sister Tip (Vicki Walden) has no money and therefore can't tip. Of the three it's sister Andi (Meredith Lyons) whose confusion is most clearly motivated—she has a baby boy named Charlie, whom she calls "Woof-Woof," and the identity of his absentee father is a mystery. Nothing much happens in this Curious Theatre Branch production directed by Matt Reiger. Mainly, the sisters talk, and it's nice to listen to them do so, though their conversation comes close to deranged blather at times. The eponymous Boppa is their father, or stepfather, or kind-of father. He never shows up. —Max Maller

Aguijón Theater's Romeo y Julieta - CARLOS GARCIA SERVIN
  • Carlos Garcia Servin
  • Aguijón Theater's Romeo y Julieta

[Recommended] Romeo y Julieta With Aguijón Theater's highly presentational rendering of Shakespeare's familiar tragedy—everything plays out on a blank, elevated square around which out-of-scene actors sit cajoling or lamenting—director Sándor Menéndez is on to something. The cramped quarters and aggressive acting astutely turn the often quaint family feud at the play's center into a frightening blood sport, making the stakes of the titular lovers' transgressive affair truly dire. It's hard to figure how Queen, the Macarena, and a bit of basketball handling belong in this world. Nonetheless, Menéndez sustains palpable tension for two intermissionless hours, ably abetted by Victor Salinas and Clara Navarro de Mora-Granados in the title roles, and the rare chance to hear Shakespeare performed in lyrical Spanish (with English supertitles) is welcome. —Justin Hayford

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