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Ubu the King, True West, and nine more new theater reviews

Alfred Jarry's absurdist satire and a minor masterpiece by Sam Shepard are among this week's highlights.


A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch Punch, the vindictive wife-beating hand puppet, comes to life as a masked, strutting scoundrel in the House Theatre's A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch. So do his traditional friends: not just Judy but the dog, the baby, the clown, the crocodile, and the prostitute Pretty Polly (Echaka Agba). Kara Silverman has set her play in 18th-century London, where Pietro (Adrian Danzig), an immigrant puppeteer, must flee the swinging cudgel of a towering constable (the delightful Will Casey) just to eke out daily bread for himself and his sidekick, the urchin Charlotte. Sarah Cartwright is spot-on in the role, sweeping her hair out of her eyes with just the right finger, cocking her shoulders at somehow the perfect Hogarthian angle to hump a too-big bag. Izumi Inaba's costumes and Jesse Mooney-Bullock's puppet bodies and masks are finely imagined; Shade Murray directed, and Kevin O'Donnell is behind the sound design and music. —Max Maller

Dylan's Apartment, at iO Theater - NATALIE CARNEAL
  • Natalie Carneal
  • Dylan's Apartment, at iO Theater

Dylan's Apartment In this iO one-act, like a parody Mad magazine might run of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a very, very friendly plumber appears in Dylan's apartment with a gigantic cardboard-cutout wrench to fix the toilet, mountainously clogged in a previous scene by a cocaine-snorting but very, very friendly police officer (the coke itself, a present from Dylan's friendly mother, had been delivered by a clueless but likewise friendly Mr. McFeely type through the front door mail slot). Creator-star-namesake Dylan Doetsch confronts the wreckage of this nice afternoon he had planned for us with the aplomb of his cardiganed predecessor, and with all the terrified cuteness of a certain hoofed animal in oncoming traffic. His beatings by squeaky landlady Natalie Carneal are a funny recurring interlude the first few times; after that, like most things in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, they start to feel a little weird. —Max Maller

Girl Jesus: Resurrected and Back to School!, at the Public House Theatre - KELLY FRANK
  • Kelly Frank
  • Girl Jesus: Resurrected and Back to School!, at the Public House Theatre

[Recommended] Girl Jesus: Resurrected and Back to School! Public House Theatre's off-night, shoestring musical about the Christian messiah reborn as a socially maladjusted teenager torn between saving humanity and getting an awesome makeover is not unlike an early John Waters film. Playwright, director, and performer Jessica Wilcox indulges in tastelessness, absurdity, and self-conscious schlock—Girl Jesus needs to shave her armpits and freeze off her warts, the rapping D.A.R.E. instructor cautions high-schoolers to "never get high on your own supply"—and coaxes a few standout performances from her fellow cast members. She also creates a ragged, disjointed, and at times truly inept evening. Yet like the mesmerizing appearances of Waters regular Edith Massey, the flaws burnish the evening's disarming oddness. It's a singular experience that gets awful just right. —Justin Hayford

I Do Today, at the Greenhouse Theater - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • I Do Today, at the Greenhouse Theater

I Do Today Sarah Myers's one-woman show follows a woman (Carin Silkaitis) struggling with the trap of heterosexuality; when, after an affair with a woman, she finds herself in a comfortable second marriage with a man, she's ashamed at embracing "the dominant paradigm." Myers offers a smart exploration of the ways religion, family, and culture offer mixed messages about love and longing, connecting the Jewish concept of bashert (a predestined spouse or soul mate) and the story of Elijah (a story of anticipation and longing for a man who may or may not arrive) with ideas from Darwin, Kabbalah, infant attachment theory, and more. These layers are fascinating, though the production itself could be less didactic and more dramatic. Silkatis has the charm to pull off a solo show, no mean feat, but the whole thing felt overstated, somewhere between lecture and stand-up while not quite either. —Suzanne Scanlon

I Know What You Sang Last Summer, at the Annoyance - EVAN MILLS
  • Evan Mills
  • I Know What You Sang Last Summer, at the Annoyance

[Recommended] I Know What You Sang Last Summer Improv comedy relies on instincts, as do the laughs. Therefore I'm going with my gut: I Know What You Sang Last Summer is funny as hell, not least because the cast of this improvised musical horror-movie spoof have a knack for drumming up topical references, sustaining them, and bringing them to a fulfilling conclusion. A short 60 minutes is all the players need to formulate a simple scenario based on one of four horror subgenres (slasher, creature, demon, or zombie) and a title suggested by the audience. In my case, the show revolved around a pair of precocious grade-schoolers who wind up lost in a haunted forest while searching for the three-fingered "hoppity-hop"; even better was the group of hapless ghouls who meet their fate at the hands of Rihanna and Drake. It may sound like sophomoric high jinks, but take my word for it: the humor is legit. —Matt de la Peña

Mamma Mia! - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Mamma Mia!

[Recommended] Mamma Mia! Directed by Jim Corti, Paramount Theatre's production of this Abba-infused classic had audience members out of their seats and dancing on the night I attended. The show's splash, glitter, and style does justice to the famed Swedish pop foursome, and everyone in the cast holds their own as a dancing queen. The story follows Sophie, a young woman about to get married who's devised a scheme meant to find out the identity of her real father. Sophie's independent and spirited single mom, Donna, a onetime singer played by a vivacious Amy Montgomery, isn't thrilled with this dredging up of her past flings, but both women learn more about themselves than they bargained for over the course of a madcap wedding weekend. Donna's best friends and former backup singers, played by Jennifer Knox and Sara Sevigny, are especially delightful and dynamic. —Marissa Oberlander

The Memory Tour - AUSTIN D. OIE
  • Austin D. Oie
  • The Memory Tour

[Recommended] The Memory Tour Pivot Arts' 90-minute site-specific piece unfolds primarily on an abandoned floor of a dreary midcentury office building—the same place esidents go for their food stamps and Medicaid hearings. Creators Julieanne Ehre and Tanya Palmer stage a series of dislocations (a fraught family dinner in the middle of a gutted office, an intimate confession revealed in an antiseptic stairwell) through which small audiences tour under the guidance of a "memory docent." The piece's musings on memory—its mutability, impermanence, inscrutability, and poignancy—aren't revelatory, and the audio and video-clip accompaniment (delivered via smartphone) add little. But even with occasionally oversize acting, the production's unassuming intimacy is refreshing, as are the myriad ways unforced audience interaction turn iconic cultural memories into something truly collective. —Justin Hayford

Scarcity, at Redtwist Theatre - JAN ELLEN GRAVES
  • Jan Ellen Graves
  • Scarcity, at Redtwist Theatre

Scarcity Some of the pain in Lucy Thurber's searing portrait of the sad, drunk, spiritually bankrupt denizens of a working-class town is played for laughs, but that doesn't make us worry any less about the two children at the center of this story—a talented high school student and his even more talented young sister, played with grace and power by Brendan Meyer and Ada Grey. We have less sympathy for the self-centered adults around them, in part because at times Thurber's dialogue feels forced and unreal, but mostly because the performances in this Redtwist Theatre production, directed by Cody Estle, are so uneven. Jacqueline Grandt is superb as the overworked, underpaid mom, but Johnny Garcia and Mark Pracht are less than satisfying as two men vying for her attention. —Jack Helbig

Smokey Joe's Cafe, at Drury Lane - BRETT BEINER
  • Brett Beiner
  • Smokey Joe's Cafe, at Drury Lane

[Recommended] Smokey Joe's Cafe Drury Lane's current revival of this popular jukebox musical anthologizing the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is far better than it has to be. Where other, less ambitious directors might be content to let the hit tunes carry the show, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge uses each song as the springboard to a fully realized comic vignette or dance sequence. The result is a glorious evening of live music videos, populated with pop icons and stock figures from 50s and 60s pop culture. It helps that she packs the cast with powerful triple threats who know how to find something new in old chestnuts like "On Broadway," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Love Potion #9." Donica Lynn, in particular, really blows the roof off the joint. —Jack Helbig

Shattered Globe Theatre's True West, at Theater Wit - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Shattered Globe Theatre's True West, at Theater Wit

[Recommended] True West Kudos to actors Kevin Viol and Joseph Wiens—and to director James Yost and fight choreographer Christina Gorman—for their handling of the harrowing yet comically extreme stage violence in Shattered Globe Theatre's new production of Sam Shepard's 1980 play. Viol and Wiens play two brothers—very different men bonded by a traumatic shared family history—drunkenly trying to churn out a screenplay for a Hollywood western even though the movie industry has given up on the genre. Smaller, younger, submissive Austin (Viol) is a screenwriter; burly, volatile, dominant Lee (Wiens) is a drifter and part-time thief, recently returned to suburban LA after a mysterious, perhaps mystical sojourn in the Mojave Desert. As director Yost suggests in his program note, the characters may be seen as different aspects of the same person—perhaps the playwright himself, trying to reconcile his conflicting impulses as professional artist and rebellious outlaw. What once felt potent as a meditation on the decline of America's "Wild West" heritage today feels as out of date as the portable manual typewriter on which Austin taps out his script. But it's still catnip for actors, and Viol and Wiens have a field day.
—Albert Williams

[Recommended] Ubu the King Long touted as proto-Dadaist satire only to be revealed now as a prophetical history of the Trump presidency, Alfred Jarry's 1896 play follows the exploits of a greedy, cowardly, flatulent, stupid piece of id called Ubu, who overthrows the king of Poland, Macbeth style, at the urging of his equally repulsive (if smarter) wife, steals all he can, picks fights with everybody, and then runs away. Jarry himself performed a version of it with marionettes, but I think he'd have been more impressed with this bunraku-esque treatment from Rough House Theater, devised by the cast and directed by Mike Oleon. Grace Needlman's cunning and hilarious soft-body designs give us Papa Ubu as a kind of nasty, talking bag, Mama Ubu as a bag with a face-lift, and braces of soldiers ready for slaughter. Black-costumed koken descend into their own subsidiary coups. And the debraining machine was such a hoot that I stopped minding the kazoos. —Tony Adler

Correction: The review ofSmokey Joe's Cafe has been emended to correctly reflect the name of the performer playing Willa Mae. It is Donica Lynn, not understudy Keirsten Hodges.

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