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Court Theatre's Agamemnon, Ibsen's Ghosts, and ten more new theater reviews

There's preholiday gloom galore on Chicago stages.



[Recommended] Agamemnon When Court Theatre looked in on King Agamemnon of Argos last year, in a powerful adaptation of Euripides's Iphigenia in Aulis, he was busy sacrificing daughter Iphigenia to the gods in exchange for favorable winds to take him and his armies to Troy. Now Court is visiting him again, this time through the lens of Aeschylus's Agamemnon. A decade has passed, Troy has fallen, the king is returning in triumph, and as for his crimes—well, victory is its own justification, right? Queen Clytemnestra thinks not. Before Agamemnon can get a home-cooked meal, she'll have made her point with a vengeance that's come to define vengeance in Western culture.

Agamemnon may test the patience of modern audiences, even in Charles Newell's fluent, often playful 90-minute staging based on a translation by Nicholas Rudall. The eldest of the three great classical tragedians (i.e., those whose work has survived down to our time), Aeschylus relies heavily on his chorus, which means a lot more telling than showing. But it's worth sitting through the talk to see how Mark L. Montgomery's Agamemnon and Sandra Marquez's Clytemnestra have evolved since we first saw them, in Iphigenia in Aulis. Then the king and queen were awkward, overwhelmed, ill suited to their cosmic roles. Now leadership has made both confident, if not necessarily wise. Clytemnestra is especially fascinating, exploiting others' expectations to get her bloody way. Tony Adler

Brian Keys and Nik Kourtis in First Floor Theater's Animals Commit Suicide
  • Brian Keys and Nik Kourtis in First Floor Theater's Animals Commit Suicide

[Recommended] Animals Commit Suicide Sex doesn’t get more depraved than “bug chasing,” the act of otherwise healthy individuals seeking out HIV infection for benefits, a sense of community, drug-fueled thrills, self-harm, or all of the above. Its real-world prevalence is questionable, but as this empathetic and twisted love story by J. Julian Christopher touches on, problematic changing attitudes about bareback sex in the era of preexposure prophylaxis are not. Hutch Pimentel’s thought-provoking and confident production for First Floor Theater is directed and acted with the sort of brute force that can make the most jaded viewer squeamish, viscerally and intellectually. Enrapturing performances and production style help offset Christopher’s blunt and motif-heavy writing (the bug chaser’s name is Chance, for goodness’s sake), which curiously errs on the side of tidy answers. Dan Jakes

Carolyn Hoerdemann and Catherine Lavoie in Mary-Arrchie's Ibsen's Ghosts - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • Carolyn Hoerdemann and Catherine Lavoie in Mary-Arrchie's Ibsen's Ghosts

[Recommended] Ibsen’s Ghosts Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts was vilified when it was first produced in the 1890s; one critic called it “loathsome and fetid . . . gross, almost putrid . . . crapulous stuff.” The beauty of Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen’s lively and witty adaptation (which he also directs) is that it reveals what all the fuss was about. Incest, venereal disease, patriarchy, class conflict—all the dark, disturbing themes are there, no longer skirted with euphemisms. More importantly, Allen’s version, and the fine cast he assembled to perform it, successfully entertains us with Ibsen’s sometimes overwrought tale, even as it (and they) comment on the action. Stephen Walker is delightfully ponderous as the hidebound authority figure (virtually a stock character in Ibsen’s plays) who enables the rampant immorality he thinks he is fighting. Jack Helbig

Sam Hubbard in Strawdog Theatre's The Long Christmas Ride Home
  • Sam Hubbard in Strawdog Theatre's The Long Christmas Ride Home

[Recommended] The Long Christmas Ride Home The title conjures images of John-Boy Walton sitting atop a hay wagon, driving a jingle-belled Clydesdale through a gentle snow while the rest of the clan lie back on a bed of straw, smiling up at the stars. And sure enough, Paula Vogel’s 2003 play revolves around a holiday visit to grandma’s house. Yet this trip is anything but idyllic. Here, the wagon is a 1950s-vintage Rambler, and the family it carries is headed for a defining trauma, with philandering Dad at the wheel, embittered Mom beside him, and three deeply uneasy kids in the backseat. Chamber-theater-style storytelling and bunraku-inspired puppets contribute to the comic, tragic, honest beauty of this unorthodox yuletide tale, sensitively rendered in Josh Sobel’s staging for Strawdog Theatre. Don’t see it with the kids unless you’re prepared for a serious discussion on the ride home. Tony Adler

  • Todd Rosenberg Photography
  • The Merry Widow

Lyric Opera’s The Merry Widow Emphatically set in Paris on the eve of the 20th century, Lyric Opera’s Merry Widow opened 24 hours after last week’s terrorist attack there. With the body count still being tallied, the atmosphere at the Civic Opera House was subdued. The audience stood and sang as the orchestra played “La Marseillaise” before curtain, and when the scene called for fireworks over Montmartre, complete with explosive sound effects, it was impossible not to be reminded of the real-world carnage. There are problems with this very traditional production, directed by Broadway’s Susan Stroman, that go beyond those horrific circumstances: most notably, a new English translation that dumbs down the already fluffy story, and some wooden acting, even from debonair leading man Thomas Hampson. But Renée Fleming, as the widow, looks and sounds lovely, and Franz Lehár’s melodic score is delicious, if bittersweet. Like Paris now, it’s best taken with a liberal dose of alcohol. Nicole Cabell will replace Fleming in the last three performances. Deanna Isaacs

Jordan Brodress and Japhet Balaban in Victory Gardens' Never the Sinner - MICHAEL COURIER
  • Michael Courier
  • Jordan Brodress and Japhet Balaban in Victory Gardens' Never the Sinner

Never the Sinner John Logan’s 1985 courtroom drama concerns the case of Leopold and Loeb, the wealthy University of Chicago undergrads who killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. They said they did it to test Nietzschean ideas about supermen beyond the reach of ordinary morality, but Logan is less concerned with motives than exploring the currents of dominance and desire passing between the two killers. This revival directed by Gary Griffin is slick and efficient, but Japhet Balaban’s Leopold and Jordan Brodress’s Loeb fail to generate much heat together. They’re convincing as remorseless snots, but not codependent remorseless snots. As the duo’s famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, Keith Kupferer manages to convey a kind of folksy exasperation, but his role feels tangential to the play’s main themes. Zac Thompson

Beau O'Reilly and minions in Curious Theatre Branch's Playing God - JEFFREY BIVENS
  • Jeffrey Bivens
  • Beau O'Reilly and minions in Curious Theatre Branch's Playing God

Playing God Matt Rieger’s premise sets up a pretty straightforward template for some divine comedy: souls determine their fates in the afterlife by challenging God (Beau O’Reilly) to a board game of their choosing. Aiding the Big Man are a dotty secretary, a cowboy bouncer, a moody guitar player, and an angel-and-demon pair who listlessly ramble off factoids about Milton Bradley. Somewhere in here may be a decent short play about the different bargaining tactics people take in their spiritual life, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it within two aimless hours of smug philosophical mumbo jumbo. The thesis, it seems, is that being master of the universe is dreadfully boring—fine enough, but here Curious Theatre Branch works overtime boring its viewers. Stefan Brün directed. Dan Jakes

Michael McKeough, Allie Long, Bob Kruse, and Morgan Maher in Griffin Theatre's Pocatello - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Michael McKeough, Allie Long, Bob Kruse, and Morgan Maher in Griffin Theatre's Pocatello

[Recommended] Pocatello The Norman Rockwell idea of small-town America continues to exert a pull on the imagination (just listen to the presidential candidates), even though many actual small towns have become clusters of chain stores along the highway. Samuel D. Hunter (The Whale) presents a more accurate picture in this compassionate, almost unbearably sad play about the waitstaff of what appears to be an Olive Garden in Idaho. Without getting preachy about it, Hunter shows how a lack of meaningful job prospects has destroyed any sense of community, plunging the characters into loneliness, substance abuse, and in some cases despair. Jonathan Berry’s pitch-perfect staging for Griffin Theatre Company captures the corporate blandness of the restaurant as well as the quiet, heart-piercing desperation of the people who work there. Zac Thompson

ETA Creative Arts' Repairing a Nation - COURTESY ETA CREATIVE ARTS
  • Courtesy ETA Creative Arts
  • ETA Creative Arts' Repairing a Nation

Repairing a Nation The looming figure in this black family drama by playwright Nikkole Salter is as sympathetic as they come: a woman knocked down to avoid the high cost of repairing her. On Christmas Eve, poor, middle-aged Lois arrives at the home of her cynical, wealthy cousin, Chuck, with twin obsessions: joining the class-action lawsuit for descendants of Tulsa race riot survivors, and proving her father was cheated out of the family business by Chuck’s dad. Charismatic performances highlight Salter’s wit and control, as when Chuck and Lois’s son amuse each other with a canny series of preposterous activist slogans. But when Salter conspicuously drops the lawsuit plot to focus on Lois’s gripe with Chuck, what results feels short on epiphanies. Jena Cutie

Clock Theater's Tales of Fated Love
  • Clock Theater's Tales of Fated Love

Tales of Fated Love Clock Theater's 80-minute one-act is an example of an intriguing premise sabotaged by botched execution. Writer-director David Denman has adapted four love stories from world folklore with tragic or ironic resolutions. One involves a man who entices the woman he loves to remove her black neck ribbon—with ghastly consequences. One recounts a Finnish legend about a showdown between two wizards. A third, set in imperial China, concerns a civil servant who tries to change the destiny revealed to him by the goddess of marriage. Another chronicles a stonemason's foolish attempt to woo a princess by building her a palace. And the climax tells of a young doctor whose amazing medical skills—a gift from none other than Death herself—cannot save his own fiancee. Unfortunately, the acting is amateurish and the production quality slipshod. And Denman's framing device— the vignettes are narrated by three Victorian schoolgirls—is awkward and inefficient. This material would have been more effective in a minimalist chamber-theater style with the characters narrating the events they experience. Albert Williams

Jennifer Mathews in Erasing the Distance's Tell Me What You Remember
  • Jennifer Mathews in Erasing the Distance's Tell Me What You Remember

[Recommended] Tell Me What You Remember Family life isn’t easy. Tell Me What You Remember, revived and remounted from last year, recounts the story, based on interviews with a real family, of an embattled clan’s struggle to cope with mental illness and dysfunction across four generations. Finely acted and evocatively staged by Erasing the Distance, this one-hour play asks some of the hard questions we encounter in the course of growing up and growing old: Why do we hurt each other? Do I have to go through this on my own? We see the Depression-era stoicism of Inez (Dana Black) as an impossible model for her daughter, Janet (Eileen Vorbach), when Janet becomes trapped in a violent, deceitful marriage with hard-working Bill (Don Bender). At a loss watching her own daughter, Kristin (Jennifer Mathews), slip toward self-destruction, Janet screams, “I need help!” That cry, brought on by regret, remorse, and the numbing effects of depression, echoes throughout this deeply moving work. Max Maller

Northlight Theatre's You Can't Take It With You - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Northlight Theatre's You Can't Take It With You

[Recommended] You Can’t Take It With You Despite dated jokes and a setup that would be far less charming were it set in the present (a charming tax cheat!), this 1936 Kaufman and Hart comedy endures. But even if it’s nostalgia that helps keep the play alive, this Northlight Theatre revival is a surprisingly fresh production, featuring a huge cast of characters whose various eccentricities are orchestrated with elegance by Devon de Mayo. “You can’t take it with you,” the patriarch of the Sycamores reminds his counterpart Anthony P. Kirby, a wealthy Wall Street stiff, and while sure, it’s cliched, it’s not overstated. And from dance-obsessed Essie (Joanne Dubach) to painter-turned-playwright Penelope Sycamore (Penny Slusher) to Boris Kolenkhov (Sean Fortunato), the Russian ballet master, there isn’t an actor here who doesn’t delight. Suzanne Scanlon

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