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Bullets Over Broadway, The Producers, MPAACT's Feral, and nine more new theater reviews

Two hit musical comedies and a drama examining the Chicago Police Department's "systemic racism" are among this week's best bets.


Bullets Over Broadway It's a shame this touring show is non-Equity, because I'd love to be able to recommend it without reservation. The production values are far higher here than they were, for instance, in the egregious non-Equity 42nd Street that stopped in Chicago last month. The cast does a great job with Susan Stroman's novel choreography. The score, consisting of classic popular tunes from the Roaring Twenties, is loads of fun. Woody Allen's book, based on his 1994 movie, tells the tale of an earnest young playwright's Broadway sojourn with a sly wit. And little touches—like the whistling-tea-kettle sound Michael Williams makes to express his utter desperation as the young playwright—are engaging. With so much going right, it'd be nice to know that the actors had all the protections and advantages afforded by a union contract. —Tony Adler

The New Colony's Even Longer and Farther Away, at the Den Theatre - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • The New Colony's Even Longer and Farther Away, at the Den Theatre

Even Longer and Farther Away Penned by Chelsea Marcantel and directed by Thrisa Hodits, the New Colony's follow-up to its standout production of Byhalia, Mississipi turns to another, more storied part of the south—the Appalachian Trail. The story follows Elliot, an angsty 30-year-old hiking the trail with a motley crew carrying his late father's ashes to honor the man's dying wish. The setting, a town "no one finds accidentally and no one leaves before they're ready," is ripe for suspension of disbelief, dripping with a southern voodoo vibe. It's filled with "mountain folk" who seem as old as the trees around them—like Trudy, played by Deanna Reed-Foster, whose earthy power sizzles beneath a patient and observant exterior. But despite an interesting big reveal about Elliot's father, the show's emotional depth and character development hardly measure up to the setting's potential. —Marissa Oberlander

Marriott Theatre's Evita - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Marriott Theatre's Evita

Evita Although nicely done under Alex Sanchez's direction, this Marriott Theatre production is helpless in the face of one enormous obstacle: the material itself. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1978 pseudo-opera uses squishy politics and pop psychologizing to tell the story of Eva Perón's rise from small-town temptress to Argentine saint. It's bad enough that they contrive a silly opposition between Perón and her countryman Che Guevara—using Guevara as a sort of Marxist terrier—to point out easy ironies. Much worse is the way they boil her life down to the familiar theme of a poor girl's search for true love. Even a cursory look at the real Evita reveals her complexity, drive, courage, and canniness in addressing issues of class and gender on a national scale. Rice and Webber's rather sexist Dame-aux-Camelias take sells her far too short.
—Tony Adler

MPAACT's Feral, at the Greenhouse Theater Center - REGINALD LAWRENCE
  • Reginald Lawrence
  • MPAACT's Feral, at the Greenhouse Theater Center

[Recommended] Feral This timely new play by Shepsu Aakhu addresses the Black Lives Matter movement, what a task force recently dubbed the "systemic racism" of the Chicago Police Department, and how these things get depicted in the media. The action hinges on the shooting by police of a radicalized graffiti artist named Francis Xavier (FX for short); in nonlinear scenes we see the buildup and aftermath from the perspective of FX's spirited teen sister and irascible father. Aakhu has political points to make, but the considerable power of the play stems from the anger and heartbreak of the characters. The same goes for Carla Stillwell's absorbing production for MPAACT, which features a pair of wrenching performances from Victoria Allen and George C. Stalling as FX's grieving family. —Zac Thompson

Shattered Globe's In the Heat of the Night, at Theater Wit - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Shattered Globe's In the Heat of the Night, at Theater Wit

In the Heat of the Night In his 2010 stage adaptation of John Ball's 1965 novel, California playwright Matt Pelfrey borrows plot elements from Stirling Silliphant's screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1967 film version as well as from Ball's original book—and also tacks on an extra twist ending different from both. Set in 1962, this noiresque murder mystery concerns an African-American homicide investigator from Pasadena reluctantly recruited to help the all-white police force of a small Alabama town track down a killer. As the detective does his duty he puts his own life at risk, incurring the rage of local racists already on edge about civil rights "agitators" disrupting their way of life. Shattered Globe Theatre's production never quite captures the feeling of sultry tension the story demands, though Michael Stanfill's imaginative lighting design fills the intimate space with a palpable sense of mystery. —Albert Williams

Teatro Vista's In the Time of the Butterflies, at Victory Gardens - JOEL MAISONET
  • Joel Maisonet
  • Teatro Vista's In the Time of the Butterflies, at Victory Gardens

In the Time of the Butterflies Like a sadistic child pulling the wings off butterflies, a dictator destroys a happy family in this adaptation of Julia Alvarez's 1994 novel. The plot is a fictionalized account of the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. In the 1950s, they fought against the bloody regime of Rafael Trujillo, who had three of the women assassinated in 1960. Ricardo Guitierrez's lyrical staging for Teatro Vista captures the contradictions of tyranny in a tropical paradise, thanks to impassioned performances and lush visuals, particularly Uriel Gomez's colorful costumes and Liviu Pasare's gorgeous video projections. All that's missing from Caridad Svich's script is historical context; we're shown Trujillo's lechery and horrible mistreatment of the Mirabal family, but we could use a clearer detailing of his crimes. —Zac Thompson

Promethean Ensemble's The Lion in Winter, at the Athenaeum - TCMCG PHOTOGRAPHY
  • TCMcG Photography
  • Promethean Ensemble's The Lion in Winter, at the Athenaeum

The Lion in Winter The zingers and venomous retorts in James Goldman's costume drama may sound timeless out of the mouths of Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in the Oscar-winning 1968 movie version, but on the contemporary stage this 1966 play centered on Henry II shows its age. It's not for lack of capable performers that this Promethean Ensemble production, directed by Brian Pastor, lags and feels out of sync—Brian Parry and Elaine Carlson as King Henry and Eleanor of Aquitane (forerunners of Empire's Lucious and Cookie Lyon, if you will) play up the comedy in their cat-and-dog power-couple dynamic as much as Goldman's sometimes forced dialogue allows. But this is well-trod territory, and the two hours-plus of royal conniving winds up stranded somewhere between sketch comedy wackiness and ineffectual Shakespearean sobriety. —Dan Jakes

Polarity Ensemble Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the Greenhouse - NICOLE LEWTER
  • Nicole Lewter
  • Polarity Ensemble Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the Greenhouse

A Midsummer Night's Dream A Midsummer Night's Dream might be Shakespeare's first experimental play. Writing for the last time in mostly rhyming couplets, he populates the forest outside Athens with fairies and nymphs and employs devices like love potions, pushing the boundaries of both form and realism. Among the play's several romantic couplings, the fairy queen Titania (Laura Sturm), tricked by the juice of a magic flower, falls in love with the fool Bottom (overclowned by Keith Cavanaugh), who's been transformed from crown to neck into a donkey (Get it? "Bottom"? Ass? nvm). The strangeness and magic of Midsummer leave it vulnerable to aggressive adaptations—and adapter-director Ann Keen's has tried to make this Polarity Ensemble Theatre production relatable by adding unnecessary songs and barely funny sight gags, shenanigans that undermine the poetry, comedy, and gravity of the play itself. —Max Muller

The Producers, at the Mercury Theater - BRETT A. BEINER
  • Brett A. Beiner
  • The Producers, at the Mercury Theater

[Recommended] The Producers Director L. Walter Stearns's revival of Mel Brooks's well-crafted showbiz musical comedy (written with Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan) is remarkable for what it doesn't do: attempt to mimic either the blockbuster 2005 Broadway version or the iconic 1968 movie (starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder). Instead, Stearns packs his cast with capable performers who have their own takes on Brooks's characters. Most notably, Bill Larkin and Matt Crowle remake the show's leads (a crooked producer and his timid accountant) in their own image, finding new laughs in the old material while making their partnership seem less contrived. Likewise, Allison Sill transforms the stereotypically sexist role of a curvy Swedish secretary into something real, believable, and not so very sexist at all.—Jack Helbig

ABLA Productions' A Splintered Soul, at Stage 773 - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • ABLA Productions' A Splintered Soul, at Stage 773

A Splintered Soul Perhaps ARLA Productions' decision to premiere Alan Lester Brooks's Holocaust survivor play on the second day of Passover accounted for the half-filled house opening night. Or perhaps even the nonobservant knew to stay away. Brooks has spectacular material at his fingertips. A handful of Polish Jews who survived Hitler's camps cling together in 1947 San Francisco, watched over by former resistance fighter Rabbi Kroeller. Gradually they reveal the horrible acts they perpetrated in order to survive the Nazis; one built steel doors for the Treblinka gas chambers, where his own family was gassed. Selected moments are engrossing, but most of the time Brooks's dramatics are clunky, his dialogue tin-eared, and his symbolism transparent. Keira Fromm's mundane direction provides insufficient momentum to bring much to life. —Justin Hayford

Red Theater's Taste, at Redtwist Theatre - M. FREER PHOTOS
  • M. Freer Photos
  • Red Theater's Taste, at Redtwist Theatre

[Recommended] Taste Surely people will criticize Benjamin Brand's 2014 play—based on the true story of two German men who met so that one could kill, cook, and eat the other—for its prurience (and director Aaron Sawyer's agonizing, exacting Red Theater production doesn't spare the weak of stomach). But the brutality is nothing compared to, say, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Better to criticize the thematic flimsiness; Brand turns an unaccountable encounter into an overworked, overfamiliar search for a "real" experience in a hypermediated, hyperisolative world. But dramatically Taste is delicious, and Sawyer expertly orchestrates 90 minutes of excruciating but often hilarious tension. His cast, Gage Wallace and Kevin V. Smith, bring dancerlike precision to nearly every moment. It's harrowing, hysterical, horrifying, and singularly exhilarating. —Justin Hayford

Honest Theatre's Two Rooms - CHAD GILLILAND
  • Chad Gilliland
  • Honest Theatre's Two Rooms

Two Rooms You'd think a 1990 hostage drama about an American professor kidnapped and held for ransom in the Middle East would be prescient. Instead, Lee Blessing's rudimentary one-act reduces its characters—the captive, his mourning wife, an ambitious reporter, and a reluctant bureaucrat—to magic-realist stereotypes. In scenes that seem to repeat themselves, a State Department official who urges patience butts heads with the journalist, who's convinced that pressure and media exposure can help force the release of the hostage. The fact that—spoiler alert—the government official cares personally about the case is somehow treated as a revelation. Chad Gilliland's production for Honest Theatre (with Fury Theatre) magnifies the biggest flaw in Blessing's script, namely, that all four characters wear their one and only intention prominently on their sleeves. —Dan Jakes

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