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Dreamgirls, Dead Man Walking, The Few, and ten more new theater reviews

Porchlight wows, Piven Theatre crusades, and Steep Theatre goes hard-core American.

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The Book Club Play Karen Zacarias's 2009 play (revised in 2013) tries to be both sharp satire and character-driven rom-com. Set in a mythical America where everyone is wild about reading, the play concerns a book club that agrees to be the subject of a documentary by a renowned Danish director. The reality-show-like setup provides the stage for a discussion of high and low art, "quality" literature and cheap thrillers. When it works, it works very well; Zacarias's characters are adeptly created, and her dialogue is pitch-perfect. But there are times when the play's rom-com aspirations blunt the satiric message, and others where barbed wit undercuts the storytelling. This 16th Street Theater production, directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, features plenty of strong acting, most notably Ann Filmer's hilarious and moving performance as a Martha Stewart-esque control freak and Brad Harbaugh's turn as her incorrigibly gauche husband. —Jack Helbig

Piven Theatre's Dead Man Walking - ZACHERA WOLLENBERG
  • Zachera Wollenberg
  • Piven Theatre's Dead Man Walking

[Recommended] Dead Man Walking Adapting Sister Helen Prejean's book and the 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins (who directed the film) makes no secret of his opposition to the death penalty. As Louisiana prepares to execute convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet, Robbins presents capital punishment as cruel, expensive, and unfairly meted out to poor offenders who can't afford decent lawyers. But Robbins doesn't let Poncelet off the hook, either, letting us hear from the victims' families and showing the ambivalence of the prisoner's spiritual advisor, Prejean. Mikalina Rabinsky's richly atmospheric staging is anchored by complex and affecting performances from Patricia Lavery as the nun and Jay Reed as the killer. Lavery in particular pulls off the difficult feat of conveying strength through compassion and piety without judgment.
—Zac Thompson

Black Ensemble's Don't Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick) - MICHAEL COURIER
  • Michael Courier
  • Black Ensemble's Don't Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick)

Don't Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick) The Black Ensemble salutes Dionne Warwick with a feel-good revue of the iconic vocalist's songs spanning a 54-year career, beginning with her 1962 debut single, "Don't Make Me Over." The bulk of the show focuses on Warwick's partnership in the 1960s with composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David—a unique matching of singer and writers that produced such hits as "Always Something There to Remind Me," "Windows of the World," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Walk on By," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," and the majestic yet bitter "Alfie." These songs sound as fresh today as ever, with their shrewd blend of pop accessibility and jazz complexity. The second act highlights Warwick's collaborations with the likes of Barry Manilow ("All the Time"), Isaac Hayes ("Deja Vu"), and Andre and Dory Previn ("Theme From Valley of the Dolls"), climaxing with a rousing rendition of "That's What Friends Are For," the AIDS benefit single she recorded with Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John. Scripted by Jackie Taylor and staged by Rueben D. Echoles, the show features a talented cast, including three young women who embody different aspects of Warwick's artistry. Unfortunately, Echoles relies too heavily on formulaic girl-group choreography—a gimmick Warwick, with her emotional intensity, natural elegance, and impeccable articulation, had no need for. —Albert Williams

Porchlight Music Theatre's Dreamgirls
  • Porchlight Music Theatre's Dreamgirls

[Recommended] Dreamgirls Wow. And once again, to confirm: wow. The Porchlight Music Theatre production of Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's 1981 hit generates more pleasing, powerful sound per cubic inch than any musical I've seen for a long time. And as familiar as I am with the tale of the Dreams—a 60s-era black girl group experiencing many of the highs and lows associated with the Supremes—director Brenda Didier and her cast kept me rapt for the show's full 160-minute running time. I loved the growl in Donica Lynn's voice as Dream member Effie White, expressing her fierce nature; the sex in Eric Lewis's moves as singer Jimmy Early, locating him at the beginnings of R&B; the steel in Evan Tyrone Martin's manner as Svengali-esque manager Curtis Taylor, conveying both his vision and his blindness. The only thing this Dreamgirls lacks, ironically, is a larger contingent of white actors to play reporters, studio technicians, and such. Without them, we don't get a strong enough sense of what the Dreams are up against as they struggle to crack a pink-complected music industry. —Tony Adler

Steep Theatre's The Few - LEE MILLER
  • Lee Miller
  • Steep Theatre's The Few

[Recommended] The Few The folks at Steep Theatre are so closely associated with contemporary British plays that it's refreshing when they take on something as hard-core American as this 2013 drama by Samuel D. Hunter. Set (with due metaphorical portentousness) on the eve of the millennium, The Few gives us Bryan, former publisher of a paper for long-haul truckers, who turns up back home in Montana, much the worse for wear, after having walked out on his life four years earlier. The play is at once soft and hard, sentimental and cool, giving and cryptic: a modest, assured, often funny look at the struggle between love and survival. Though there's room for Peter Moore to push further into the hard-bitten, you've got to admire his restraint as Bryan. Dana Black is delightful for all her cussedness as Bryan's jilted girlfriend. And Travis Coe's performance as a damaged teen manages to be over-the-top and precise at the same time. —Tony Adler

Eclipse Theatre's Jesus Hopped the "A" Train - SCOTT DRAY
  • Scott Dray
  • Eclipse Theatre's Jesus Hopped the "A" Train

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train A caged-in yard on notorious Rikers Island, the jail complex/national embarrassment between Queens and the Bronx, is the setting of this unsettling 2000 agitprop drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Each of the two protagonists is guilty (one, in fact, has murdered eight people and faces extradition to a state with the death penalty), but as the pragmatic public defender played by Elizabeth Birnkrant observes, in neither case has justice been served. Undermined by too-neat speeches and a surfeit of metaphors, Anish Jethmalani's awkwardly blocked production for Eclipse Theatre—which is devoting its season to Guirgis—isn't the damning indictment of the U.S. prison system that it wants to be. But Johnathan Nieves's raw performance as a headstrong, ultimately empathetic youth is heartbreaking. —Dan Jakes

The Kinematics' double bill of Milkwhite and Pool (No Water) - MADI ELLIS
  • Madi Ellis
  • The Kinematics' double bill of Milkwhite and Pool (No Water)

[Recommended] Milkwhite/Pool (No Water) The Kinematics are a new kid on the block—the fledgling theater collective barely have a website, and their Facebook page (first post November 2015) doesn't give you much to go on either. But the talent on display in this double bill will leave you feeling that you've been missing out for a long time. Produced by Chris Smith and staged at Pilsen's Chicago Art Department, the show features a rarely performed work—English playwright Mark Ravenhill's Pool (No Water)—and a world premiere, Milkwhite, by Anthony Kochensparger. Both are raw, visceral plays that touch on addiction and the manic, compulsive behavior of the artist in society. That may sound overly broad, but thanks to superb performances the theme is never short on substance. With that in mind, it's easy to imagine the Kinematics going from new kid to hot ticket in the blink of an eye. —Matt De La Peña

Strangeloop Theatre's Mitera - AUSTIN D. OIE
  • Austin D. Oie
  • Strangeloop Theatre's Mitera

Mitera Playwright Maria Burnham has the framework for a great Horton Foote domestic drama. Southern Greek-American sisters Olga, Nitsa, and Dimitra convene for their mother's funeral. Expecting a sizable inheritance, they discover they'll get nothing unless Dimitra, the free-spirited youngest, settles into marriage within a year. One big secret may prevent Dimitra from ever walking down the aisle, and when cousin Dimitris arrives from Greece with a thinly veiled plot to scuttle any future nuptials, all hell should break loose. But Burnham diminishes the stakes by overexplaining and undercomplicating her story, and Dimitris's ultimate extortion plan doesn't make enough sense. Still, she creates a compelling, layered world where ossified ethnic traditions provide comfort and trauma. That world's left half-formed in Strangeloop Theatre's tentative production. —Justin Hayford

The Q Brothers' Othello: The Remix - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • The Q Brothers' Othello: The Remix

Othello: The Remix This slick hip-hop-style reinterpretation of Othello dumbs down Shakespeare's verbal, psychological, and emotional complexity to adolescent levels, draining the drama from the classic tale of a jealous husband who murders his adoring wife. Turning Othello from a Moorish military officer into a rapper from the ghetto, writer-directors Jeffrey and Gregory Qaiyum (aka the Q Brothers)—along with actors Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran—narrate the action in singsong, often sloppily rhymed couplets backed by an insistent electronic beat. The all-male crew tackle multiple roles, resorting to cartoonish caricatures. Oddly, Othello's doomed bride, Desdemona, is represented only as an invisible synthesized voice, while other female characters are played as bimbos or nags—a troubling take on an ever-timely story of male sexual jealousy and domestic violence. —Albert Williams

Tympanic Theatre's Paper City Phoenix - SERGIO SALTERO
  • Sergio Saltero
  • Tympanic Theatre's Paper City Phoenix

Paper City Phoenix A manic woman's attempt to livestream her own suicide goes awry when a flash of lightning transforms her into a human embodiment of Siri. For good measure this satire about technology then has her using her brain-implanted Wi-Fi to track down her "ex," who's joined an analog-only cult. Oh, and there's a pair of bumbling FBI agents chasing someone printing the entire contents of the Internet. Walt McGough's dark comedy is so convoluted and filled with quirks that not even the threat of world destruction can give it any weight. Likewise, Rebecca Willingham's production for Tympanic Theatre launches into out-of-this-world silliness, then belatedly asks to be taken seriously.
—Dan Jakes

Rogue Theater's Pygmalion - SCOTT DRAY
  • Scott Dray
  • Rogue Theater's Pygmalion

Pygmalion George Bernard Shaw's classic makeover comedy gets the storefront treatment in this intimate production from Rogue Theater. Lacking the budget for elaborate scenery, director Nathan Robbel has the cast recite Shaw's detailed set and character descriptions—a clever idea that conjures early 20th-century London as effectively as any scenic designer could. Unfortunately, the interpretations of fussy phonetician Henry Higgins and cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle offered by Nate White and Nellie Ognacevic, respectively, tend to undermine the duo's evening-long battle of the sexes (and classes). Ognacevic's Eliza is so vulnerable it's hard to imagine her standing up for herself, while White turns Higgins, contra Shaw, into a jovial, knee-slapping good sport with about as much bite as Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Present. —Zac Thompson

The Other Theatre Company's The Realm - ASHLEE ESTABROOK
  • Ashlee Estabrook
  • The Other Theatre Company's The Realm

The Realm Water on earth has nearly run out. Everyone lives underground. Children routinely kill their parents at retirement age. The air makes people gradually forget language, extinguishing their desires and making them easily controlled by the never-seen leaders of the Realm. Playwright Sarah Myers packs her new drama with lots of potent ideas, but as George Orwell showed, the trick to making a dystopian future convincing is rigorous internal logic. Here Myers falls short. Why would language loss suppress desire? Why has humanity moved underground? And if the Realm's leaders' greatest fear is that a citizen will escape aboveground, why is an unlocked escape hatch always accessible by ladder? Director Kelly Howe nicely exploits the script's creepy menace, but buying into this world is arduous. —Justin Hayford

New American Folk Theatre's Trash!
  • New American Folk Theatre's Trash!

Trash! Examining the concept of "trash" from every possible angle, this campy show from New American Folk Theatre centers on trashy former B-movie star Jinx Malibu (Anthony Whitaker), who lives with her white-trash family in a double-wide trailer full of, yes, trash. Out-of-towner Mr. Hollywood (Jamal Howard), columnist for a trash-talking celebrity blog, makes a pilgrimage to meet this kitsch icon only to find a household where savings are blown on scratch-off lottery tickets and dead dogs pile up under cast-off pizza boxes. To make matters worse, Jinx is no longer the jiggly pinup of yore but a pill-popping mound of flesh who believes that Mr. Hollywood has come to resurrect the Rocket Pussy franchise that made her career. Only Whitaker's comedic brilliance spares this play by Johnny Drago from the dumping ground. —Max Maller

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