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Le Switch, The Mutilated, and nine more new reviews worth your notice

On the off-Loop scene: the latest from local playwright Philip Dawkins, an obscure Tennessee Williams one-act, and a Neil LaBute funfest

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[Recommended] Bye Bye Birdie In the wrong hands, this 1960 homage to/parody of Elvis Presley and that awful “music” all the kids are listening to can seem very dated indeed. It was, after all, written to entertain old farts (my parents among them) who considered 50s rock ’n’ roll a mere fad. Thankfully, director-choreographer Tammy Mader is a clever woman who respects the material enough to find the comedy in the show’s gentle send-up of middle America while also moving us with the glorious, albeit prerock, score. Of course, you need a high-caliber cast to do this, and for this Drury Lane production Mader has brought out lots of big guns, among them Michelle Aravena (dynamite as a sad-sack songwriter’s girlfriend/secretary) and Leryn Turlington (who sizzles as the young teen who wins the right to kiss the Elvis stand-in, Conrad Birdie, before he goes into the army). —Jack Helbig

Signal Ensemble Theatre's swan song, The Consultant
  • Signal Ensemble Theatre's swan song, The Consultant

[Recommended] The Consultant Heidi Schreck’s bittersweet recession one-act is a fitting closer for Signal Ensemble Theatre, now dimming the lights for good after 13 seasons. An advertising firm in the throes of downsizing hires a woefully underqualified NYU student to bolster a hopeless designer’s presentation skills before a sink-or-swim pitch meeting. The Pygmalion-like story line never makes any real sense, nor does the fatalistic, perpetually late, pants-pissing designer ever feel worthy of saving. It’s the rest of the recession-era setting that redeems: as the office glue, Courtney Jones conveys the strange, dependent, contentious relationship employees have with their work environment, hated or not. Ronan Marra’s production finds value and beauty in getting shitcanned, no matter how unceremoniously. Good-byes don’t get more noble or touching than that. —Dan Jakes

Aguijón Theater's Epopeya, Abel González Melo’s reimagining of Euripides's Hecuba
  • Aguijón Theater's Epopeya, Abel González Melo’s reimagining of Euripides's Hecuba

Epopeya The first production of Aguijón Theater’s 26th season “begins where the battle ends.” So sayeth the program notes for Epopeya (“Epic Poem”), a contemporary retelling of Euripides’s Hecuba, whose characters are as desperate for harmony as they are thirsty for revenge. The main players in writer Abel González Melo’s tragedy are no different. The fall of Troy brings unrest to an island of inhabitants who have suffered brutality at the hands of warring elites. At the center of the drama is the former queen Hécuba, a woman accustomed to the finer things in life. Confined to an otherwise deserted island and destitute in the aftermath of the battle, Hécuba is forced to reconcile a once-fruitful future with the little she has left. Contemporary references often fall flat, but a stellar cast compensates with enough gusto to make the show worthwhile. Be prepared to shift your gaze early and often, as the play is performed in Spanish with English supertitles. —Matt de la Peña

Oracle Theatre's The Hairy Ape - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • Oracle Theatre's The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist drama gains contemporary resonance in this production cast entirely with black men. Director Monty Cole obviously means to make a connection between the travails of the play’s working-class hero, Yank—regarded by the upper crust as a fearsome brute when he’s not being exploited, ignored, beaten, or thrown in jail by their lackeys—and the issues of racial inequality and violence brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement. The enterprise is helped considerably by a gripping performance from Julian Parker, whose Yank is equal parts pathos, youthful exuberance, and feverish rage. The only trouble is Cole’s intrusive production design, which is so loaded with atmospheric effects (echoing voices, clanking pipes, eerie lighting) that it’s easy to miss the text. —Zac Thompson

Mierka Girten and Jennifer Engstrom in A Red Orchid's production of Tennessee Williams's one-act The Mutilated - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Mierka Girten and Jennifer Engstrom in A Red Orchid's production of Tennessee Williams's one-act The Mutilated

[Recommended] The Mutilated You’ve probably never heard of this 1966 Tennessee Williams one-act, but you’re sure to recognize it all the same. Set in late-1940s New Orleans, just a streetcar ride from Stella and Stanley’s tenement, it’s sown with familiar Williams types: lowlifes, sailors, and damaged, desperate women of a certain age. Trinket and Celeste both come from money, and both have fallen very far—Celeste because of her alcoholism, Trinket due to a disfiguring surgery. They were friends until Celeste made a characteristically clumsy attempt to leverage the secret of Trinket’s “mutilation.” Now each has arrived at her dark Christmas Eve of the soul. Williams treats the pair with a brutal grace. Dado’s staging for A Red Orchid Theatre couches them in a kind of Brechtian surrealism full of strange, comic sights. Jennifer Engstrom’s brassy Celeste and Mierka Girten’s defensively demure Trinket make them heartbreaking. —Tony Adler

Dash Barber and Christopher Borek in Steep Theatre's Posh
  • Dash Barber and Christopher Borek in Steep Theatre's Posh

[Recommended] Posh Steep’s Theatre’s U.S. premiere of a 2010 drama by British playwright Laura Wade is intense and disturbing. Purportedly about class warfare, Posh is in fact about rich people and the persistence and fragility of wealth, perhaps especially in this onetime empire. I wasn’t fully convinced by the script—you may wonder, as I did, what’s at stake, exactly, or whether the play isn’t itself reifying existing inequities (much like Bruce Norris’s Domesticated, currently at Steppenwolf). But what a pleasure to watch this feat of ensemble theater as Jonathan Berry’s direction reveals the fragility of the bonds between the members of an exclusive Oxbridge dining club. Steep’s small space heightens the harrowing tone: we audience members at first seem to be in a room we likely wouldn’t be invited into, eavesdropping; eventually, we feel captive to certain horror.
—Suzanne Scanlon

AnJi White and Kelvin Roston Jr. in TimeLine's Sunset Baby
  • AnJi White and Kelvin Roston Jr. in TimeLine's Sunset Baby

Sunset Baby In one of many suffocatingly somber moments in Dominique Morisseau’s hit 2013 play, former black revolutionary Kenyatta intones, “The man in the mirror is the scariest revolution there is.” Tell that to Fred Hampton. Morisseau’s inability to distinguish psychobabble from radical politics—or to paint the legacy of the black liberation movement in anything but the broadest of strokes—might be forgivable if it resulted in compelling drama. But her story of Kenyatta’s efforts to reconnect with his long-abandoned daughter Nina, now selling small-time drugs with her big-dreaming thug boyfriend Damon, is implausibly contrived to the point of melodrama (the stilted, explain-everything-as-we-go dialogue doesn’t help). Director Ron OJ Parson gets searing performances from his cast, then compromises their efforts with unaccountably sluggish pacing.
—Justin Hayford

About Face Theatre's Le Switch - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • About Face Theatre's Le Switch

[Recommended] Le Switch As shown in his previous plays The Homosexuals and Charm (staged by Northlight Theatre at Steppenwolf Garage last fall), Philip Dawkins has a knack for depicting contemporary LGBT life with warmth and wisecracks. His new comedy is set shortly before and after the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision legalizing marriage equality—a development met with ambivalence by the play’s protagonist, David, a gay thirtysomething librarian. He remains squeamish about state-sanctioned lifelong commitment even after falling for Benoit, a sweet and sexy flower vendor he first encounters during a trip to Montreal. Though it’s a fizzy tale, Dawkins displays a tender compassion for gays still carrying the scars of feeling unwelcome and inferior. The wit and likability of his script is matched by a talented cast in About Face Theatre’s staging. —Zac Thompson

Dakota Hughes, Jake Morrissy, Ellen Fred, Alex Ghattas in Open Door Rep's [Title of Show] - WILLIAM FREDERKING
  • William Frederking
  • Dakota Hughes, Jake Morrissy, Ellen Fred, Alex Ghattas in Open Door Rep's [Title of Show]

[Title of Show] Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s 2014 metamusical about a couple of guys writing the very show the audience is watching comes off as wild and witty—the first time you see it. But it doesn’t seem to hold up to repeated viewings. At least, I can’t think of any other way to explain my lukewarm reaction to Ashton Byrum's wonderfully paced production for Open Door Rep. His four-member cast is energetic and personable; Alexander Ghattas and Jake Morrissy in particular have great comedy-team chemistry as the fictional versions of Bowen and Bell. Still, every joke that had me roaring last August, when I caught a different production, had me merely nodding and smiling faintly this time around. Once the gimmick wears off, you see there's no there there, just two clever narcissists who find themselves endlessly fascinating. —Jack Helbig

Kellye Howard - MIKE JUE
  • Mike Jue
  • Kellye Howard

Transparent Early on in Kellye Howard’s energetic and brutally honest one-woman show, she gestures to the pile of her teenage journals onstage and urges audience members to run the other way if they encounter anyone with half as many physical manifestations of their “crazy.” Less a cohesive narrative than an ever-changing stand-up dramedy set, Howard’s show covers her search for “normal” in everything from race (is she more Cosby Show or The Wire?) to parenting to mental illness. Her marriage to an Asian man who’s shorter than her teenager—and her paranoid underwear sniff tests and other detective work following his infidelity—provides particularly moving and relatable fodder. Although uneven at times, Howard’s exploration of her personal struggles with marriage, illness, and death exposes admirable vulnerability and strength. —Marissa Oberlander

Marilyn Bass and Steve Silver in Lovely Head, part of Profiles' Neil LaBute double feature "Vices and Virtues" - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Marilyn Bass and Steve Silver in Lovely Head, part of Profiles' Neil LaBute double feature "Vices and Virtues"

[Recommended] Vices & Virtues Eleven directors and 20 actors put on one hell of a showcase at this double feature of short plays, some premiering, by Neil LaBute. For every LaButism to grumble about—depravity, heavy-handed ambiguity, self-righteous speeches, women shrieking at slobs—there’s an empathetic and disarming counterbalance. Both programs feature some magnificent work, but of the two, “Virtues” contains the most pleasant surprises, particularly 10-K, a naturalistic flirtation with infidelity featuring Betsy Bowman and Tom McGregor, and Swallowing Bicycles, a pushback against unyielding artists. With good reason, some of these shorts will no doubt be fast-tracked into workshops; see them here first. —Dan Jakes

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