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The Nether, The Book of Joseph, and seven more plays to see now

Thought-provoking productions at A Red Orchid and Chicago Shakespeare Theater are among this week's best bets.

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The Assembled Parties In this Raven Theatre production Cody Estle directs Richard Greenberg's Tony-nominated dramedy, which follows an Upper West Side family across a 20-year time period. In act one the Bascov clan converge at their 1980 holiday gathering, where the audience is introduced to a family focused on assimilation and upward mobility. Charismatic matriarchs Julie (Loretta Rezos), the Christmas-loving German Jew, and her sister-in-law Faye (JoAnn Montemurro), a Woody Allen stock character full of Yiddish quips and Jewish anxiety, share a familial bond and love for Julie's son Scotty (Niko Kourtis), on whom they've pinned the family's future. His overbearing parents may have presidential dreams for him, but Scotty doesn't, and the 20 years and multiple misfortunes between acts send the Bascovs on an entirely different course. While Greenberg's smart and musical language delights throughout, a greater focus on character development would make for a more impactful landing. —Marissa Oberlander

Sean Fortunato in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Book of Joseph - WILLIAM BURLINGHAM
  • William Burlingham
  • Sean Fortunato in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Book of Joseph

[Recommended] The Book of Joseph Karen Hartman's rich, multilayered play begins as a straightforward stage adaptation of Richard Hollander's 2007 book Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence From Poland, which recounts his refugee father's efforts to stay in the USA in the late 1930s and early '40s and get his extended family out of Nazi-occupied Poland. But halfway through, the play turns meta, moving the focus from the heroic father to the American-born son, and to the gnarly question of how much the son fictionalized his father in his book. Seasoned by years of directing Shakespeare, Barbara Gaines has crafted a simple, powerful production for this world premiere, uncluttered by unnecessary sets or props. Instead the story is carried by Hartman's words and an A-list cast—Francis Guinan and Sean Fortunato are riveting as the shy, self-effacing son (and storyteller) and his fierce, focused, and idealized survivor father. —Jack Helbig

Travis Turner in Windy City Playhouse's Bootycandy - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Travis Turner in Windy City Playhouse's Bootycandy

Bootycandy Playwright and director Robert O'Hara revives his 2011 play for this Windy City Playhouse season premiere, consisting of semi-autobiographical vignettes about growing up queer and black. It's the most provocative and assertive work to come out of the young company to date; it's also an incredibly frustrating hodgepodge of compelling story fragments and overbaked sketch comedy. At center is an author (played by Travis Turner and transparently based on O'Hara) who seeks misguided advice from his parents, skewers academia's tokenism of black artists, and dabbles with infidelity. Scenes with limited premises, like a lesbian couple partaking in an ironic beachside divorce ceremony, start strong with bitingly funny performances, then run out of steam long before they're over. Worse, metatheatrical flourishes undercut dramatic scenes just as they're beginning to gain momentum. —Dan Jakes

Redtwist Theatre's Death of a Salesman - KIMBERLY LOUGHLIN
  • Kimberly Loughlin
  • Redtwist Theatre's Death of a Salesman

[Recommended] Death of a Salesman A fine cast under Steve Scott's direction for Redtwist Theatre delivers a moving, emotionally intimate rendition of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer-winning 1949 masterpiece—the story of a Brooklyn family whose belief in an illusory American dream (in which being "well liked" is the key to happiness in "the greatest country in the world") has locked them into destructive patterns of denial and dishonesty. Scott's bare-bones, alley-style staging places Miller's tragedy in arm's reach of the audience. The 13-person ensemble—including Brian Parry as failed traveling salesman Willy Loman, Jan Ellen Graves as his anxious wife, Linda, and Matt Edmonds as his alienated, disillusioned son Biff—respond with an unaffected honesty that places the playwright's sometimes preachy critique of capitalism (a system that feeds people false values and discards them when they can't measure up) in its necessary heartbreaking emotional context. —Albert Williams

Northlight Theatre's Faceless - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Northlight Theatre's Faceless

[Recommended] Faceless Selina Fillinger's new play, receiving its world premiere production at Northlight, is much subtler than its glib premise might lead you to believe. An ambitious, Harvard-educated Muslim lawyer is forced to face faith and family when she's asked to lead the prosecution against a hijab-wearing white suburban teen (and recent convert) who fell for a terrorist on Twitter and subsequently announced her allegiance to ISIS. Fillinger has a great ear for dialogue and a knack for creating believable, fascinating characters, which director BJ Jones takes full advantage on in his well-cast and tidily paced production. In an ensemble full of fine, experienced performers (among them Ross Lehman, Joe Dempsey, and Timothy Edward Kane) Susaan Jamshidi stands out, ably embodying the many fine nuances Fillinger has built into her protagonist. —Jack Helbig

Edgar Sanchez in Congo Square Theatre's Hobo King - SAM ROBERSON
  • Sam Roberson
  • Edgar Sanchez in Congo Square Theatre's Hobo King

Hobo King In this Congo Square Theatre production, homeless tap dancer Lazy Boy (Kyle Smith) is gunned down by police in his makeshift Chicago encampment. His death inspires a ragtag band of revolutionists to revolt for justice, compassion, and recognition. The group includes clairvoyant street artist Blind Man (Lionel Gentle), animalistic Freda (the uproarious Velma Austin), and wheelchair-bound Preacher Man (Lyle Miller), whom the movement crowns, with a tinfoil coronet, its Hobo King. Javon Johnson's script is a palpable call to action, stitching together dance elements and rousing rhetoric to convey a timely and urgent message. The play's demands are forceful and its execution is fluid, but some of the passages are excessively turgid. —Max Maller

Manual Cinema's The Magic City, at the Station, the new home of Chicago Children's Theatre - JULIA MILLER
  • Julia Miller
  • Manual Cinema's The Magic City, at the Station, the new home of Chicago Children's Theatre

[Recommended] The Magic City Here's a brilliant idea: Take an abandoned police station in the West Loop, invest millions of state dollars, and create a multiroom theater for a worthy company. Remind us that art might still be our best hope in these uncertain times. At Chicago Children's Theatre's new permanent space, the Station, Manual Cinema presents a play about nine-year-old Philomena, an orphan raised by her much older sister, Helen. When Helen gets married, Philomena's life changes radically—she gains not only a stepfather but an annoying stepbrother, Lucas. The four actors alternately perform and create shadow puppetry, using overhead projectors, cutouts, and everyday household items. Once Philomena lets Lucas into her attic "city," things change for both kids—their journey becomes a shared one of making meaning (a kind of magic) out of loss.
—Suzanne Scanlon

Guy Van Swearingen and Maya Lou Hlava in The Nether - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Guy Van Swearingen and Maya Lou Hlava in The Nether

[Recommended] The Nether As people increasingly pay attention to screens instead of the physical world, I hope Jennifer Haley's staggering script will rally more playwrights to engage virtual reality through theater. A shadowy corporation called the Nether has enabled users to fulfill their fantasies in hyperrealistic digital "realms" without fear of consequence. Reclusive Web developer Sims (Guy Van Swearingen) is under arrest at the Nether for encouraging pedophilia in his private, quaintly Victorian paradise, the Hideaway. What plays out, in half the scenes, between plugged-in avatars at the Hideaway and, in the other half, between their human counterparts in Sims's interrogation chamber blurs all the boundaries between appearance and reality, questioning the effectiveness of laws when people live in a disembodied existence. Directed by A Red Orchid ensemble member Karen Kessler, the show is impeccably staged, and all of the performances are deeply moving. —Max Maller

[Recommended] Starrs Is Getting Up There Actor and poet John Starrs has been a contributor to Rhinofest for about 25 years—the exact number eludes his memory; nowadays, he admits, a lot of things do. In a free-form, mesmerizing hour, veteran storyteller Starrs gets frank and relays how aging affects his body and artistic process. Accompanied by an improvised score and video projections by Doug Chamberlin, Starrs blends haiku about Chicago neighborhoods, stories about reacclimating to everyday life after being released from a polio hospital, and backstage anecdotes about the midcentury comedy and theater scenes in New York and Chicago. The show is a whirlwind of history, whimsy, and melancholy, all of which are delivered with gallows humor and succinct poignancy. —Dan Jakes

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