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Congo Square’s A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, Black Ensemble’s The Marvin Gaye Story, and ten more new theater reviews

Two African-American companies present revelatory dramas.

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Bars and Measures Troubled jazz bassist Bilal thrives off chaos, while his rock-steady classical pianist brother Eric craves order. Playwright Idris Goodwin tries to squeeze two epic battles from their fraught rivalry. The first concerns their efforts to turn common musical ground into a brotherly demilitarized zone, and the second concerns Bilal's possible involvement in terrorism and Eric's struggle to believe his brother's innocent. It's potent stuff, even with Goodwin's reductive musicology and undervetted plotting (Bilal's a federal detainee yet spends regular time with Eric inventing jazz riffs in an ill-defined prison room), but in only 70 minutes neither story is adequately developed; the evening feels like a highlights reel. Still, director Tara Branham coaxes nuanced, satisfying performances from Osiris Khepera and Anthony Conway as the warring brothers. —Justin Hayford

The Dark Ages: Otho the Great - FRANK FARRELL
  • Frank Farrell
  • The Dark Ages: Otho the Great

The Dark Ages: Otho the Great Talk about a deep cut. Romantic poet John Keats's only full-length play didn't make waves in his lifetime and hasn't in the two centuries since, and it's easy to see why. Frank Farrell brings this academic curiosity about Ludolph, son of German king Otto I, to life in an admirably ambitious production in a church chancel. Audiences who lack a master's degree in position jostling among medieval blue bloods won't have much to hang their interest on—only a handful of actors in the double-digit-size cast have a firm grasp of Keats's iambic pentameter, and just about every line is either melodramatically sneered or underdelivered. Peculiar blocking choices, including liberal use of the balcony surrounding the pews, and inconsistent projection render some of the most vital plot points inscrutable. —Dan Jakes

Hell in a Handbag Productions' The Divine Sister - RICK AGUILAR
  • Rick Aguilar
  • Hell in a Handbag Productions' The Divine Sister

The Divine Sister Gay royalty Charles Busch lovingly mashes up golden-era nun flicks in this drag farce presented by Hell in a Handbag. As Mother Superior, David Cerda shares Busch's appreciation of old-Hollywood stylistic tropes, particularly when they're combined with naughty camp. It's fun to see director Shade Murray bring his professionalism to this pageant-style silliness, and he indulges in the best way possible with Charlotte Mae Ellison and Chad's float-size turns as a miraculous sister and a weapons-grade atheist. The site-specific location offers limited returns (sure, there's a bar in back, but the phrase "cunt face" goes down easier outside of a church), and the wackiness wears after 90 minutes or so, but Chad's male-male drag performance as a schoolboy earns big laughs every time. —Dan Jakes

City Lit Theater's Hauptmann - PAUL GRIGONIS
  • Paul Grigonis
  • City Lit Theater's Hauptmann

Hauptmann The 1986 premiere production of Hauptmann was a very big deal. The critics raved and two illustrious careers were launched—those of writer John Logan and star Denis O'Hare. Now the original director, Terry McCabe, is commemorating the auspiciousness of it all with a 30th-anniversary staging that's thoroughly competent but fails to demonstrate what the fuss was about. Set in a prison cell in 1936, the play introduces us to Bruno Hauptmann, the man executed for killing the Lindbergh baby, allowing him to tell his story and argue his innocence. We're meant to find him compelling, if not necessarily trustworthy. But in George Seegebrecht's performance, he rarely moves beyond a hapless, bewildered victimhood. The lack of any competing aspects in his character kills any mystery and dulls out the show. Things only get interesting in a courtroom scene, when the prosecuting attorney (Brian Pastor) hectors Hauptmann on the stand. —Tony Adler

Theatre-Hikes' The Jungle Book - EVANSTON PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIOS INC.
  • Evanston Photographic Studios Inc.
  • Theatre-Hikes' The Jungle Book

[Recommended] The Jungle Book An adaptation of the stories of Rudyard Kipling by Tracey Power, this rollicking Theatre-Hikes production might be one of its most appropriate yet to be staged outdoors. Like the veteran jungle creatures they played, the cast paid no mind to the Pullman State Historic Site's blistering, mid-90s heat on the afternoon I attended. Enhanced with puppetry, percussion and loads of animal noises that piqued the kids' curiosity, the story follows Mowgli (played by earnest, carefree Eldridge Shannon III), the man cub who's orphaned and raised by wolves. With the help and fierce loyalty of his bear friend, Baloo (William Goff), and sage panther Bagheera (Felix Mayes), Mowgli learns to navigate dangerous jungle forces, from wacky, overpowering gangs of monkeys to his vicious tiger archnemesis, Shere Kahn (Timothy Sullivan). —Marissa Oberlander

Black Ensemble Theater's The Marvin Gaye Story - DANNY NICHOLAS
  • Danny Nicholas
  • Black Ensemble Theater's The Marvin Gaye Story

[Recommended] The Marvin Gaye Story: Don't Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend Black Ensemble is one of my favorite theaters in the city; an opening here is a religious experience, an immersion in joy and truth. In this case, the truth is the brilliance and trauma of Marvin Gaye (Rashawn Thompson), whose talent made him wildly famous but whose personal demons—a family legacy of abuse, violence, shame, and despair—destroy him. The show is narrated by Gaye, in his heavenly realm, where he's found freedom and a way to forgive his father, Marvin Gay Sr. (Henri Watkins), an ordained minister who shot him to death when Marvin Jr. was just 44. The story of Gaye's rise and fall is strewn with musical numbers in this revival—always a highlight of a show here—and Thompson, cast in Jackie Taylor's jukebox drama, has the charisma and power to inhabit the title role. The songs will be familiar, but for some of us the particulars of their conception will be newly revelatory. —Suzanne Scanlon

Lake Forest Theatre's The Secret Garden - DUSTIN ROTHBART
  • Dustin Rothbart
  • Lake Forest Theatre's The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden There can't be many companies that choose to make their debut on a good-size proscenium stage, performing a conceptually tricky Broadway musical in a manner that requires period dress, a 24-member cast, and a 15-piece orchestra. So the folks at Lake Forest Theatre deserve points for daring to go big on this 1991 work by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, about a ten-year-old British girl—raised in the Raj and orphaned by a cholera epidemic—who finds herself consigned to the bleak Yorkshire estate owned by her Uncle Archibald. Still, director Steve Malone might've done better to start small. Although he's populated his cast with competent artists, Malone's use of them is alternately muddy, static, or puzzling. And his decision to keep the orchestra out of sight defeats the benefits of its size: the piped-in music sounds prerecorded. It doesn't help that, as Archibald, Edward Fraim seems forced to sing outside his range. —Tony Adler

Tiffany Addison and Gregory Fenner - MARCUS DAVIS
  • Marcus Davis
  • Tiffany Addison and Gregory Fenner

[Recommended] A Small Oak Tree Runs Red The old ghosts of the south come alive in this beautifully audacious tragedy by Lekethia Dalcoe. Directed by Harry Lennix (The Blacklist, Chi-Raq), this true tale of Mary Turner (Tiffany Addison)—a young woman eight months pregnant who was lynched in 1918 after denouncing the similar murder of her husband—is told through fearless, emotionally bare performances, ethereal language, heartbreaking melodies, and the sheer brazen truth. And while there are one or two confusing moments in this world premiere, the cast always pulls you right back in. It's a chilling reality that's painful to face; but cathartic as well. Based on the standing ovation and conversations heard in the hall, it seems I'm not the only one who left this Congo Square Theater production forever changed. —A.J. Sørensen

The Sound of Music - MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Matthew Murphy
  • The Sound of Music

[Recommended] The Sound of Music The Sound of Music might be a mildly kitschy, slightly old-fashioned, middlebrow musical, but it's a well-made one, with a strong book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse and a killer score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Still, it's hard to make it soar the way it does in this flawless, faithful revival. The casting is great—particularly Kerstin Anderson and Ben Davis, who have a palpable frisson as Maria and Captain von Trapp—the performances lively and quick. Most impressive of all, though, is how well director Jack O'Brien is able to balance the comedy and pathos in the material, earning big laughs one minute and moving us the next. —Jack Helbig

Piebenga Plumbing's A Storm of Limbs - LOREN ENGLAND
  • Loren England
  • Piebenga Plumbing's A Storm of Limbs

A Storm of Limbs Sketch comedy at its highest level can go toe to toe with any well-made play in terms of truth and honesty. Laughs are born, in part, when an audience can relate to a character or experience. But unless you live in the improv bubble or are a member of the Piebenga family, you're going to struggle to relate to this misguided sketch revue from Piebenga Plumbing. Both Piebenga brothers, Mark and Scott, are guilty of overacting to try to compensate for their underdeveloped script, and the opening act, a ukulele-wielding, Merle Haggard-singing musical guest, set the tone for a gimmicky, disjointed, all-around sloppy affair. Instead of building the necessary tension, the brothers are content to simply tease with darker references. Try again. —A.J. Sørensen

Forth Story's Tapped: A Treasonous Musical Comedy - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Forth Story's Tapped: A Treasonous Musical Comedy

Tapped: A Treasonous Musical Comedy This Forth Story production of Jed Levine and Brad Kemp's new musical comedy is awfully bad but also kind of endearing. The bad touches pretty much everything. Levine's book, in which dweebish do-gooder Steve and lonely NSA analyst Mary fall in love while attempting an Edward Snowden-esque takedown of domestic spying? Doesn't make sense even on its own terms. Kemp's music is dull; Holly Gombita's choreography annoyingly peculiar; the band needs loads of work; and the lyrics, though clever at times, tend to state the obvious. Worst of all, something—maybe the maddeningly drawn-out scene changes in Molly Todd Madison's staging—stretched the running time to three hours on opening night. There's some sweet relief, though, in the charm and spirit of the cast—particularly Laureen Siciliano as Mary. She may actually be talented. —Tony Adler

The Untold, Untrue Love Story of Bill and Hillary Clinton, at iO - ALLIE LEFEVERE
  • Allie LeFevere
  • The Untold, Untrue Love Story of Bill and Hillary Clinton, at iO

The Untold, Untrue Love Story of Bill and Hillary Clinton Late in this fanciful hour-long history of the Clintons' early-1970s romance, the ever-striving Hillary voices her long-range plan: she'll be the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, because by then "feminism will be normal." It's a moment that epitomizes the missed potential in Grace Perry's and Lyndsay Rush's script. Only occasionally does it meaningfully exploit the social-revolution-is-nigh exuberance that saturated the left-leaning worldview four decades ago. Instead, most of the time it dallies in familiar Clinton hyperbole: she's a privileged, ambitious ice queen, he's a sax-playing, fast-food-eating, womanizing Arkansas doofus. It makes for some easy if only rarely innovative fun, somewhat diminished by director Sarah Ashley's intermittently hesitant staging, as when law student Bill holds a combative press conference announcing himself as candidate for Hillary's new boyfriend. —Justin Hayford

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