Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Feature

Death & Harry Houdini, the 'nearly flawless' One Man, Two Guvnors, and seven more new theater shows

The House Theatre performs a little magic and Court Theatre gathers an A-list ensemble.


The Body of an American Paul Watson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his photograph of Somalis dragging a dead American soldier through the streets, has witnessed innumerable atrocities while covering war zones around the globe; he's left with a crippling case of PTSD. Dan O'Brien, who's written some poems and plays you've never heard of, has a brother who, as a teen, jumped from a third-story window and landed safely in a snowbank; as a result, O'Brien's still upset. In this 2016 play, O'Brien spends 90 stupefying minutes drawing an equivalence between his and Watson's struggle, chronicling his own efforts to write this undisciplined, overcooked play and leaving Watson's own story underdeveloped. Jason A. Fleece's swift staging for Stage Left has it charms, but go read Watson's memoir instead. —Justin Hayford

Pride Films & Plays's The Boys Upstairs - PAUL GOYETTE
  • Paul Goyette
  • Pride Films & Plays's The Boys Upstairs

The Boys Upstairs Three gay college friends reunite as adult roommates in this fizzy sex romp by Jason Mitchell. In a Hell's Kitchen walk-up, a nebbish blogger, a sweetheart monogamist, and Jack McFarland-meets-Foghorn Leghorn drop double entendres and fawn over the presumptively straight neighbor. David Zak's direction for Pride Films & Plays takes a goofy stab at urban romantic farce—no pun goes untouched, and all three abuse one-liners and look at adulthood through the lens of Logo TV. Some jokes are written with more self-awareness than others—no one onstage seems to notice how creepy a prolonged "grope the passed-out guy" gag is—but it's an excuse for Luke Meierdiercks to do quintuple duty and shine as a handful of different one-night stands. —Dan Jakes

Artemisia Theatre's Chewing on Beckett - KAT TUSHIM
  • Kat Tushim
  • Artemisia Theatre's Chewing on Beckett

Chewing on Beckett Inspired by the fact that Samuel Beckett's estate forbids women from performing in Waiting for Godot, this world premiere, penned by Ed Proudfoot and directed by Steve Scott, is meaty material for Artemisia, with its stated mission to produce plays that empower women. Beckett's material is chewed on, both figuratively and literally, in a two-act, dialogue-driven story of a Beckett scholar in mental decline (an electric Diane Dorsey) and her former student (Julie Proudfoot, Artemisia's founder and Ed's wife), as they struggle to survive in a not-too-distant apocalyptic future. Strong, tragicomic acting from the all-female cast of five helps tease out raw, gut-wrenching moments from extremely dense source material. The production isn't for the literary faint of heart. Think of it as your most aspirational college lecture with a side of graphic, dystopian despair. —Marissa Oberlander

House Theatre of Chicago's Death and Harry Houdini - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • House Theatre of Chicago's Death and Harry Houdini

[Recommended] Death & Harry Houdini Nathan Allen's play about the legendary escape artist has already cheated death a few times. It introduced the House Theatre of Chicago to Chicago in 2001, received a remount in 2003, then ran again in 2012 and '13. Now it's back for the House's 15th anniversary, with solid vital signs and perennial Houdini Dennis Watkins back in his water-torture cell. Basically a magic show nestled in a biography, the production recounts Houdini's life in the graphic-novel style the House has long favored, veering between the cartoonishness of Houdini's gibberish-spouting mama (rendered endearing despite her decades-long bad mood by Marika Mashburn) and a spectral, top-hatted embodiment of Death. As for the magic: though it loses the sense of raw wonder in a theatrical setting, it's accomplished with enormous cunning, elegance, and skill. —Tony Adler

Underscore Theatre's Haymarket: the Anarchist's Cookbook - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Underscore Theatre's Haymarket: the Anarchist's Cookbook

Haymarket: The Anarchist's Cookbook Underscore Theatre's original musicalized treatment of Chicago's Haymarket riot and its aftermath fairly bursts with promise, from Elizabeth Margolius's imagistic staging to Erik Barry's seductive lighting to Robert Ollis's and Tyler Merle Thompson's exacting musical direction. David Kornfeld's haunting if somewhat derivative score cunningly fuses American folk and European cabaret. Throw in a stalwart nine-person cast who play nearly every acoustic instrument known to man, and you should have a smash. But Alex Higgin-Houser's alternately overfocused (act one) and underfocused (act two) book and workmanlike lyrics turn much of the two-hour show clumsily diagrammatic. And the inconsistent effort to focus the show around Lucy Parsons, firebrand widow of one unjustly executed Haymarket "coconspirator," ultimately comes to nothing. Glimpses of greatness abound. Rigorous reworking awaits. —Justin Hayford

The Hypocrites's Johanna Faustus - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • The Hypocrites's Johanna Faustus

Johanna Faustus As in many of the loose adaptations of classic works presented by the Hypocrites, this modern-language riff on Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus stays true to neither the letter nor the spirit of the original. Adapters Emily Casey and Sean Graney (who also directs) have the titular scholar trade her soul to hell—not for knowledge or power, but for a chance to topple Christianity. Turns out Faustus has been anti-religion ever since her parents were killed in a holy war. The cast of Graney's hour-long production perform the jokey script with a lot of enthusiasm, but their efforts can't distract from the show's fundamental incoherence in matters ranging from plot to whatever it is Casey and Graney are trying to say about religion. —Zac Thompson

Court Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Court Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors

[Recommended] One Man, Two Guvnors Charles Newell's hilarious, nearly flawless direction of Richard Bean's modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's 1753 farce is a case where everything goes right. The ensemble (a collection of Chicago's A-list actors at the top of their game) is first-rate, Mara Blumenfeld's mod- inspired costumes are delightful, and Collette Pollard's set is both eye-pleasing and integral to the show's postmodern comic conceit (that the audience is reminded at all times that they are watching a play, even as they are drawn into the story). Set in Brighton, England, in 1963, the show evokes the spirit of both commedia dell'arte and the mad, mod world of an early-60s Richard Lester romp. Grant Olding's British Invasion-inspired songs (performed by the cast) are icing on the cake. —Jack Helbig

The Artistic Home's The Seagull - JOE MAZZA AT BRAVE LUX INC.
  • Joe Mazza at Brave Lux Inc.
  • The Artistic Home's The Seagull

The Seagull Two years ago, Kathy Scambiatterra played mother opposite Julian Hester in Jean Cocteau's incestuous dark comedy Les Parents Terribles. They reunite as mother and son for Cody Estle's staging of Anton Chekhov's tragicomedy. Once again, there's something off-kilter in the dynamic, meaning they also want to bone each other in this one. In Artistic Home's intimate black-box space, Hester overplays Chekhov's inherently satirical depiction of hungry author Konstantin Trigorin: here, he's a juvenile, hysterical brat; he should be a dour sourpuss, which is meant to seem incongruous with his charismatic and romantic reputation. Together, the capable ensemble offers a competent but perfunctory take on a classic play that is, somewhat ironically, about indulgence in the artistic process. —Dan Jakes

The Annoyance Theatre's Super Picante - SAM BENGTSON
  • Sam Bengtson
  • The Annoyance Theatre's Super Picante

[Recommended] Super Picante The most potent improv and sketch shows tend to directly reflect the unconventional observations of the casts who create them. So it's a shame more isn't being done to diversify the theaters that showcase comedy in Chicago; the effort could offer audiences more complex and compelling scenes with a greater variety of viewpoints. Director Miguel Lepe Jr. directly addresses the dearth of Latin performers with Super Picante. The show's a mixed bag—improv and sketch mingling with stand-up, storytelling, spoken word, and music—but the rotating all-Latin cast bring perspectives missing from the city's comedic stages. Some scenes are entirely in Spanish. Not everyone in the audience will get each and every reference, but that's exactly why you should see this show. —A.J. Sørensen

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