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Baudelaire in a Box: Unquenched, The Burials, and nine more new theater reviews

Theater Oobleck's stage translation of Les Fleurs du Mal continues.

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  • Michael Brosilow

Apartment 3A Talk about your sweet nothings! Written by Jeff Daniels (best known lately for his turn as TV news anchor Will McAvoy on HBO's The Newsroom), this romantic comedy wouldn't amount to much even if director Ron OJ Parson could make it work. As things stand, though, it's a silly absence with a spooky twist, about a woman named Annie who's been rubbed raw by a bad breakup and a frustrating job as director of fund-raising for a public-television channel. Of course, love is standing right in front of her in the form of coworker Elliot—but the question of whether she'll see it is secondary here. The real mystery is why Elliot doesn't give up after the millionth indication that she's not just wrong for him but downright nasty. Parson doesn't seem to believe in the situation anymore than I do, since he gives up on any semblance of verisimilitude: one scene finds the couple shouting across a restaurant in a way that nobody ever shouts across restaurants. It's a waste inasmuch as Eleni Pappageorge (Annie) and José "Tony" Garcia (Elliot) can definitely do charm. —Tony Adler

Refuge Theatre Project's Bare: A Pop Opera - LAURA LEIGH SMITH
  • Laura Leigh Smith
  • Refuge Theatre Project's Bare: A Pop Opera

Bare: A Pop Opera If Christian rock had a secular cousin, it might sound something like Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo's 2000 musical about two queer young men and their peers coming of age at a Catholic boarding school. Refuge Theatre Project revives the original version (a second began circulating in 2012) in Edgewater's Epworth United Methodist church sanctuary, an act of site specificity that offers an uncomplicated thematic backdrop at the expense of audio and microphone/speaker inconsistencies. There's no question that Matt Dominguez's expansive young cast is vocally adept; whether or not everyone is well suited to the angsty, raw-sounding, musical-theater pop-rock score of the era is more iffy. As Sister Chantelle, A. Nikki Greenlee is a highlight who offers doses of adrenaline throughout. —Dan Jakes

Baudelaire in a Box Episode 9: Unquenched - KRISTIN BASTA
  • Kristin Basta
  • Baudelaire in a Box Episode 9: Unquenched

[Recommended] Baudelaire in a Box Episode 9: Unquenched Dave Buchen, Chris Schoen, and several of their talented friends have been at it for years now, translating Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal into English, poem by poem; setting each translation to music; and performing the results alongside Buchen's drawings, which appear on a hand-cranked scroll, cantastoria style. This 80-minute installment, comprising 14 illustrated songs, is the penultimate episode (the tenth comes in the spring) before Theater Oobleck stages Baudelaire in a Box in its entirety in August. Between the black-and-white pictures and the musical influences ranging from country to klezmer, the overall tone here is moody; even Mickle Maher's slangy, comic treatment of "L'Avertisseur" (about the nasty yellow snake living in every man's heart) can't quite shake off the darkness. But it's a lovely, sweet-minded kind of darkness, well expressed by the onstage septet. The only significant problem is the same one Buchen and Schoen have had all along: as presented, the images and songs exist in separate universes, failing to integrate into a single theatrical statement. —Tony Adler

  • Michael Brosilow
  • The Burials

[Recommended] The Burials This Steppenwolf for Young Adults offering uses the ancient Greek legend of Antigone as a starting point for an examination of contemporary gun violence. When the disturbed teenage son of a Republican senator goes on a murderous shooting spree at a suburban high school before killing himself, the politician—running for reelection—eacts by embracing an extremist "gun rights" agenda, proposing legislation to arm schoolteachers. His usually dutiful daughter defies him, becoming a spokesperson for gun control. Caitlin Parrish's script resonantly explores themes of personal conscience and public morality, and director Erica Weiss's production effectively uses multimedia to reinforce the ensemble's fine performances. —Albert Williams

The Comrades' Dying City - CODY JOLLY
  • Cody Jolly
  • The Comrades' Dying City

[Recommended] Dying City Anybody who appreciates technical refinement onstage will want to catch this Comrades' production, now in the middle of a four-week run at the Heartland Studio Theatre. Set during the Iraq War, Christopher Shinn's drama had its initial run in 2006, when the first round of exit dates from the conflict had come and gone and people had started to wonder whether U.S. forces would ever be able to extricate themselves. Mickey O'Sullivan, last seen in Strawdog Theatre's DOA, has powerful gifts as an actor, and they're on display here as he plays identical twins, one of whom, Craig, has died in Baghdad, leaving his Harvard PhD thesis on Faulkner half finished and his brother, Peter, a gay actor, self-destructively struggling through his grief. Craig's widow, Kelly, brilliantly portrayed by Laura Matthews, is a therapist who confused Craig and now confuses Peter with her icy imperviousness in the face of conflict, whether global or domestic. When anger comes rippling out of her at the end, it's as chilling as it is cathartic. Elizabeth Lovelady directed. —Max Maller

The Plagiarists' Epic of Gilgamesh . . .  - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • The Plagiarists' Epic of Gilgamesh . . .

The Epic of Gilgamesh, as Told by Mr. George Smith, Associate Curator for the British Museum (Deceased) The Gilgamesh epic was brought over on clay tablets from Nineveh to the British Museum through the latter part of the 19th century. Amateur Assyriologist George Smith (Bryan Breau) leaped giddily into the philological fray and, deciphering the cuneiform with an autodidact's self-assurance, became convinced that Western culture had rediscovered, and liberated from backward, barbaric Nineveh (modern-day northern Iraq), a "lost chapter of the Bible." The Plagiarists' Gilgamesh is part Indiana Jones, part Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, juxtaposing episodes in the life of Gilgamesh (Raef Carter) with scholar-hero Smith's breathless paraphrases. I wish the satire on Victorian manners had allowed itself to extend as far as the empire; were the tablets really liberated from the evil shah's dung heap, or were they stolen? —Max Maller

Chicago Slam Works' Just Numbers - STEVEN FORDHAM
  • Steven Fordham
  • Chicago Slam Works' Just Numbers

Just Numbers The issues brought up by this ensemble of poet-actors from Chicago Slam Works are painfully familiar to anyone who cares about education in America: snake-oil "reforms," charlatan charter schools, and, above all, the cult of the standardized test. But the hybrid nature of the show—part poetry slam, part group-written play—brings out the worst in both genres. The story, about eight students who run afoul of school authorities when they rebel against the ACT, is predictable and underwritten. The poems are standard-issue slam screeds that too often substitute self-righteous rage for revelation. That these performers create as much drama as they do on a mostly bare stage makes me wish they had written stronger material for themselves. —Jack Helbig

The Gift's A Life Extra Ordinary - CLAIRE DEMOS
  • Claire Demos
  • The Gift's A Life Extra Ordinary

A Life Extra Ordinary Melissa Ross's new drama, in which Annabel, a recently murdered young woman, escorts an audience through high and low points in her truncated small-town life, is pregnant with possibility. For much of act one, it's both a singularly melancholy crime procedural and a millennial Our Town. Act two ruminates on the mundane yet consequential choices we make in the name of love. But dramatically, the play is a nonstarter; the murder mystery lacks intrigue, and the veneration of ordinary life is too pat by half. Still, director John Gawlik's contemplative production has warmth and sincerity to spare. While a couple of performances feel oversize for the Gift Theatre's intimate space, as Annabel, Cyd Blakewell shows yet again how much resonance understatement can contain. —Justin Hayford

Raven Theatre's Red Velvet - DEAN LA PRAIRIE
  • Dean La Prairie
  • Raven Theatre's Red Velvet

Red Velvet It shouldn't surprise anyone that black American actor Ira Aldridge's unprecedented appearance as Othello on a London stage in 1833 caused some discomfort, consternation, and even outrage in the white theatrical establishment. Yet British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti spends nearly the entire first act of her 2012 play demonstrating the obvious, often repetitively. Moreover, both Aldridge and his castmates seem bewildered by critics' virulently racist attacks in act two—as if they can't fathom such responses in an empire that hasn't fully abolished slavery. Despite glancing references to contemporary issues like nontraditional casting, the play feels like an unconvincing museum piece, culminating in not one but two overwrought climaxes. Under Michael Menendian's serviceable direction, this Raven Theatre premiere can't enliven an overly demonstrative script. —Justin Hayford

While Our Blood Is Still Young Amanda Dunne Acevedo and Lindsey Barlag Thornton are absolutely in it to win it. Granted, I have no idea what "it" is, and in this "devised duet," they're fairly open about that being a mystery to them as well. Like a blackbox studio exercise, the two use the concept of exhaustion as a jumping-off point for personal vignettes, endurance challenges, comedy bits, and absurdist snippets. Genesis isn't kidding when it calls the project a "messy romp"—by the end, the floor is littered with confetti and spaghetti, and both a mattress and a Slip'N Slide have been pressed into service. Thornton and Acevedo are compelling storytellers, but here they're kicking around ideas very much in development. —Dan Jakes

Chicago Theatre Workshop's Wicked City - JAY KENNEDY
  • Jay Kennedy
  • Chicago Theatre Workshop's Wicked City

[Recommended] Wicked City New incubator the Chicago Theatre Workshop seeks to provide a launching pad for artists, and this, the first show of its inaugural season, certainly does some launching. Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar's film-noir-inspired musical comedy is a big show that features Broadway-caliber voices from cast members including Lauren Roesner, Javier Ferreira, and Rashada Dawan. As damsel in distress Jo Van Cleave and private dick Eddie Cain, Roesner and Ferreira are a charming central couple with sharp comedic timing and strong vocal harmonies. Dawan delights as unreliable narrator Madam Theresa, a fortune teller and neighborhood gossip who sings "Love Makes Fools Out of All of Us." The copious references to noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity may pass over the heads of some, but it's a fun ride, with humor for all demographics. —Marissa Oberlander


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