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Our ten best bets for fall theater

Trainspotting: the play, 44 plays for 44 presidents, and more

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Sweet Bird of Youth

The Artistic Home mounted a beautiful production of Sweet Bird of Youth just two years ago. But as Obie Award-winning director David Cromer notes, "Great art is different every time." An idiosyncratic risk taker with a knack for revealing new facets of well-known scripts, Cromer is making his directorial debut at the Goodman Theatre this fall with that same Sweet Bird—Tennessee Williams's 1959 drama about an over-the-hill actress shacked up with an aging gigolo in a Palm Beach hotel. It will star Oscar-nominated actress Diane Lane and TV heartthrob (and onetime Evanstonian) Finn Wittrock.

"Williams was always writing," says Cromer, a native Chicagoan whose local credits include Our Town for the Hypocrites, A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers' Theatre, and, most recently, Rent at American Theater Company. "He wrote all day every day. It was a need, an addiction, a hunger—and that hunger to keep going runs through this elusive, ever-changing play."

Though Sweet Bird can come off as melodrama, Cromer intends to reveal it as a poetic reflection on the ephemerality of youth, beauty, and love, mined from Williams's own emotional problems and substance dependency. "Sometimes when you watch a play about people in hotel rooms drinking and doing drugs, it's about, 'Look how pathetic they are,'" says Cromer. "I want to go the other way—not distance the audience, but draw them into the characters' experience. Kind of Stockholm syndrome them." Albert Williams 9/14-10/25: Wed-Sun and Tue 10/16, check with theater for showtimes, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $27-$88.

Metamorphoses

Not that it happens very often, but just let someone mention Ovid's Metamorphoses to me and two great artworks come immediately to mind. The first is Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture Apollo and Daphne, showing the precise moment at which the smitten sun god has caught up with the latest object of his affections only to find her turning into a tree. And the second? Mary Zimmerman's stage adaptation of several stories from the 2,000-year-old collection, as performed by Lookingglass Theatre in 1998.

Specifically, I think of the big pool of water that dominated the set. Actors waded through that pool, floated across it on an inflatable raft, soaked laundry and frisked in it, emerged from and disappeared into its depths. More important, they became marvelous characters. Midas, whose touch turns his daughter to gold. Orpheus and Eurydice, who nearly conquer death. Alcyone and Ceyx, who actually do conquer death, transformed into birds. The water somehow made all of it possible.

Zimmerman's show went to Broadway in 2002 and won her a whole slew of awards, including a Tony for best direction. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of that triumph, she and Lookingglass are reviving Metamorphoses. Should go swimmingly. Tony Adler 9/19-11/18: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM, check with theater for exceptions, Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $28-$70.

Don't Give That Beast a Name

"The way we approach faith can be at times fun and at times horrifying," says playwright Randall Colburn, discussing Don't Give That Beast a Name, his current collaboration with Mammals artistic director Bob Fisher. (Reader contributor Zac Thompson called their last one, Dream Journal of Dr. Jekyll, "inventively grotesque.") The new play centers on Frank and Marie, folk musicians in a small Appalachian town, who fall in love at first sight. Trouble is, he's a snake-handling fundamentalist while she prefers more liberal expressions of religious devotion. Their different methods of praying pull them apart.

Religion has been a theme of Colburn's writing since college, when he fell in love with a preacher's daughter and Jesus at the same time. Although he no longer identifies as born again, he says he tries to depict the search for faith in a way that isn't judgmental. With Beast he means to question the reality of love at first sight—whether it's love of another person or of God. Julia Thiel 9/22-11/3: Fri-Sat 8 PM, no Friday shows 9/28-10/12. Zoo Studios, 4001 N. Ravenswood, 866-593-4614, chicagomammals.com, $20.

Woyzeck on the Highveld

The Handspring Puppet Company's most famous creations are entrancing equines made of steel, leather, and aircraft cables. Those Tony-winning contraptions will gallop into the Cadillac Palace Theatre in December, when War Horse arrives. But an older drama by the South African company hits Chicago first. Woyzeck on the Highveld shifts Georg Büchner's classic play from 1830s Germany to 1950s Johannesburg; the title character is no longer a German soldier but a black migrant worker, who suffers through dehumanizing indignities, including sexual humiliation and quack medical experiments.

One of South Africa's best-known artists, William Kentridge, directed and designed the original production in 1992, just after the collapse of apartheid, supplying a landscape of animated drawings before which Handspring's carved-wood, bunraku-style puppets acted out the tale of woe.

The company plans to retire the show after this tour, which includes a stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where it'll dovetail with "MCA DNA: William Kentridge" (9/22-3/17), an exhibit of Kettridge's films and palimpsest-like drawings. When Woyzeck on the Highveld first played Chicago in 1994, the Reader's Albert Williams called it "grim stuff—stark, moody, and quietly relentless—that demands and rewards close attention." Robert Loerzel 9/27-9/30: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010, mcachicago.org, $10-$35.

44 Plays for 44 Presidents

Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller are great, but presidential politics are America's best theater—a fact the Neo-Futurists recognized when they staged 43 Plays for 43 Presidents back in 2002. Giving our nation's commanders in chief a short play apiece, 43 supplied a wry, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind-style look at the goonishness, violence, and ego that have accompanied the office. It also brought more people to the Neo-Futurarium than any prior full-length show, and the playwrights say Jimmy Carter once guffawed at the Reagan bit.

Like other great plays, election season gets restaged on a regular basis. So the company is doing an update, appended for President number 44 after his neatly absurd first term. Between Obamacare, Osama bin Laden, and old boy Joe Biden, there's a lot of ground to cover. Asher Klein 10/4-11/10: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, 773-275-5255, neofutrusts.org, $10-$20.

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