Bachelorette, Hard Times, and 12 more stage shows to see now | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Bachelorette, Hard Times, and 12 more stage shows to see now

A "ferocious ensemble effort" and a pitch-perfect revival are among this week's best bets.

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Anything and Always . . . To say that Nic Wehrwein's Anything and Always is a trite sob story fit for the slush pile at Lifetime would be to pile on one more cliche to an interminable 140 minutes full of them. A young victim of breast cancer, Courtney (Michelle Alejandra Limon) frolics in the afterlife as she did in life, crashing onto the stage with such vigor that the vibrations can be felt in the last rows. Her insipid counterpart is Art, interpreted by Wesley James as a monotone writer who grits his teeth and smiles whether he's happy, sad, or mad. Limon's charisma can't save a play with dialogue that ranges from the self-evident ("I'm dead!") to the bathetic ("Promise me you'll write about this!"). The best moments come when its characters don't speak, a credit to Limon's embodiment of Mary Iris Loncto's choreography. —Irene Hsiao

[Recommended] Bachelorette In February, Spenser Davis directed a stellar production of Michael Perlman's heart-filled At the Table, a tightly knit living room dramedy following the mid-midlife crises of friends outgrowing their youthful bonds with one another. This gnarly, in-yer-face 2010 dark comedy by Leslye Headland shares some surprising thematic and stylistic crossover with Davis's previous show, and like it, benefits from his close attention to casual back-and-forths—even if the outcome this time around is straight-up misanthropic. Ensconced in her friend's bridal suite, a late twentysomething (Carmen Molina) invites old friends for a night of debauchery and learns the hard way the difference between what's long past cute and what's irrevocably horrid. This Level 11 production is a ferocious ensemble effort all-around. —Dan Jakes

Porchlight Music Theatre's Billy Elliott - AUSTIN PACKARD
  • Austin Packard
  • Porchlight Music Theatre's Billy Elliott

Billy Elliott Porchlight Musical Theatre opens its first season at the newly rehabbed Ruth Page Arts Center with a show that wouldn't have been possible at its old haunt, Stage 773. Brenda Didier's production of this uplifting 2000 movie musical features a massive Margaret Thatcher puppet that towers over the cast, and Billy (Lincoln Seymour and Jacob Kaiser alternate in the role) soars above the audience during its most euphoric scene. Didier's direction achieves the balance of grace and grit required by Lee Hall and Elton John's adaptation, best reflected in the performances of Sean Fortunato, whose portrayal of grieving widower is steeped in pain, and Shanésia Davis, who's an electric onstage presence when she gets to cut loose. —Oliver Sava

MPAACT's Burf of a Nation - SHEPSU AAKHU
  • Shepsu Aakhu
  • MPAACT's Burf of a Nation

Burf of a Nation The socially acceptable window for "covfefe" jokes was about five hours, the ballpark time it took the world to be reassured that the president wasn't starting World War III but instead, as suspected, dementedly farting out half-baked tweets of rage against the TV. Carla Stillwell (who also directs) and Leonard House peg this sitcom-style satire to the May social media incident (good God, that was only May?), then go on to detail the creation of a black-governed micronation at odds with Trump's America. It's half-baked, but this MPAACT production gets at the heart of what made the 2016 election an at once surreal and painfully unsurprising experience for people of color, and it cushions the blows with broad physical gags and sporadically punchy one-liners. —Dan Jakes

Natara Easter and Kate Young - DAKOTA SILLYMAN
  • Dakota Sillyman
  • Natara Easter and Kate Young

The Devil's Disciple New Hampshire, 1777. The British occupation and the old Puritan ethic have each come under attack, the one by rebel forces of the Springtown militia, the other by the loose morals of a wily outcast, Richard Dudgeon (Gary Alexander). A case of mistaken identity thrusts Richard into accidental virtue, and brings out the diabolical side in his most Presbyterian of townsmen, the Reverend Anthony Anderson (Doug MacKechnie). There could hardly be a more ancient stage trick, but Shaw, last of the great Victorian rhetoricians, loads every twist and turn of the melodrama with a deadly accuracy of phrase that bristles even in a concert reading, ShawChicago’s trademark for 23 years. The cast, directed by Robert Scogin, is so good it hurts—you’ll wish you could see them do more, particularly Barbara Zahora, playing the minister’s overwrought wife. —Max Maller

Facility Theatre's Fool for Love - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • Facility Theatre's Fool for Love

Fool for Love In the spot where you'd expect to find a biographical note about director Zeljko Djukic, the program for this inaugural production by Facility Theatre quotes drama professor Stephen J. Bottoms on Wim Wenders's 1984 film Paris, Texas, which Sam Shepard wrote. "Shepard fully endorsed Wenders' approach," the quote reads, "suggesting that the director's 'Europeanness' had enabled him to highlight an obsessive quality about . . . American culture that certain American directors would totally overlook." Watch the production and it's easy to see why the Yugoslavian-born Djukic might find that worth sharing. Especially in its opening passages, Djukic's staging brings an almost Beckettian inertia to Shepard's tale of haunted lovers having it out in a cheap motel. Like the characters in Endgame, they obsessively replay their peculiar tragedy. Something is gained, but something is lost, too: a secure grounding in shit-kicking American naturalism. —Tony Adler

The Neighborhood's Good Night, Fred Rogers - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the Artist
  • The Neighborhood's Good Night, Fred Rogers

Good Night, Fred Rogers The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the puppet world from children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, serves as the setting of this whimsical fever dream of a new play by Kadin McGreevy. Castle curtains hang loosely, a ladder props up green tissue paper to serve as a tree. The characters, equally Etsy with felt crowns and collars, face real fear when Fred Rogers's magical trolley doesn't arrive--a harbinger of stormy weather and the disappearance of everyone's favorite neighbor. Daniel Striped Tiger insists on a rescue mission. He's temporarily thwarted by other characters' demands to build a bunker, but you know he's going down the tunnel eventually. That plot point is stretched out for more than an hour thanks to MacGuffins, yelling, and inexplicable moments such as when King Friday XIII, with an arm draped in Christmas lights, smashes Daniel in slow motion. The show's charmingly slipshod aesthetics can't cover its slipshod plot. —Steve Heisler

Facility Theatre's Fool for Love - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • Facility Theatre's Fool for Love

[Recommended] Hard Times The current revival of Heidi Stillman's 2001 adaptation of Charles Dickens's sober, satirical 1854 novel about life among the rich and working poor in the fictional Coketown combines understated theatrical scenes with a handful of circus acts (in particular the Spanish Web) to create an intelligent, quietly powerful drama. This isn't a show for audiences who don't like to listen (or think). But for those with a touch of patience and a taste for literary theater, the production offers many rewards—like pitch-perfect acting under Stillman's direction (Audrey Anderson and Cordelia Dewdney particularly shine), fine costumes (designed by Mara Blumenfeld), and ear- and eye-pleasing design from Andre Pluess (sound) and Dan Ostling (the superb set). —Jack Helbig

Trap Door Theatre's Occidental Express - MICHAL JANICKI
  • Michal Janicki
  • Trap Door Theatre's Occidental Express

[Recommended] Occidental Express It's hard to imagine a director better suited to stage Romanian playwright Matei Visniec's confounding, deadpan hallucinations than Istvan Szabo K. Crossing the Atlantic to tackle his third Visniec opus with Trap Door since 2011, the Hungarian director orchestrates this feverish inquiry into balkanization—geopolitical, interpersonal, and psychological—with more nuance and specificity than ever before, staging the fragmentary, ever-morphing scenes with whirling precision. His design team turns the small stage into an unsettled diorama of dismaying beauty, and the seven-person cast of Trap Door veterans display extraordinary fluency in Visniec's indecipherable theatrical language. The result is 90 minutes of masterful perplexity, as shadowy, clownish figures race in and out of their own troubled histories in failed attempts to create (or, unaccountably, erase) anything genuine. —Justin Hayford

The New Colony's Punk - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • The New Colony's Punk

Punk Playwright Michael Allen Harris turns big ideas into small drama. He creates a maximum security prison unit reserved for gay, bisexual, and transgender inmates, where the disastrous consequences of poverty, trauma and/or social marginalization are everywhere evident. The hard-won peace in the unit's self-described family is shattered when Travis, convicted of murderous gay bashing, requests a transfer there. The story raises complex issues around sexual identity, social responsibility, and prisoners' rights, but for too long Harris engages in wish fulfillment, painting the unit as a kind of understaffed boarding school for the slightly fabulous, slightly sassy, and unfailingly supportive. When emotional crises erupt, they're largely unearned. Despite uneven casting, this New Colony premiere, codirected by Diana Raiselis and Katrina Dion, still manages moments of great pathos. —Justin Hayford

Queerly Beloved, at the Annoyance - COURTESY HUGGABLE RIOT
  • Courtesy Huggable Riot
  • Queerly Beloved, at the Annoyance

Queerly Beloved The ensemble of Huggable Riot's Queerly Beloved don't want to come across as too gay during the opening musical number, but they quickly accept that their queerness isn't something to tone down. This LGBTQ sketch revue isn't the tightest hour, though it does feature enough gems for a worthwhile evening of racy, silly, and occasionally heartfelt humor. Two overbearing parents interrupt a casual hangout session between queer teens in a sketch with sharp pacing and finely pitched performances from Meaghan Morris and Nathaniel Strain. A harrowing evening at Roscoe's during Market Days is turned into a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing game in the show's most clever, confident piece. But the most impressive feat is how the group builds on a tired vibrator joke, increasing the stakes until sex toy's batteries become a matter of life and death. —Oliver Sava

Remy Bumppo's The Skin of Our Teeth - NOMEE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nomee Photography
  • Remy Bumppo's The Skin of Our Teeth

[Recommended] The Skin of Our Teeth In act one the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey, has to cope with the Ice Age. In act two it's the biblical flood. Act three? A devastating war. I wish this sounded more far-fetched than it does. Thornton Wilder's masterpiece was supposed to be absurd when it premiered in 1942 (all except for the war part; that was real enough at the time). But now—given Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the California wildfires, just for starters—the disasters Wilder piled on humankind are beginning to look like business as usual. Which only makes this Remy Bumppo Theatre production more apt and worthwhile. Wilder tells the unlikely story of Homo sapiens' survival with idiosyncratic wit, deep empathy, and formal innovations that anticipate writers like Eugene Ionesco. Krissy Vanderwarker's staging is effective, though it picks up better on the play's light tones than on the dark ones. Kelly O'Sullivan is amusingly wry as Sabina—narrator, seducer, and slave. —Tony Adler

First Floor Theater's Two Mile Hollow - JULI DEL PRET
  • Juli Del Pret
  • First Floor Theater's Two Mile Hollow

[Recommended] Two Mile Hollow First Floor Theater presents the world premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler's multilayered sendup of "white whine" melodrama. Three children return to their childhood home in the Hamptons—just as their mother has put it on the market—to wallow in self-pity and hash out their decades-old resentments. One of the most hackneyed setups in theater is skewered by casting all the traditionally Caucasian roles with people of color. What raises Winkler's play above mere parody is that it manages to mock its overprivileged protagonists while simultaneously honoring the truth of their grievances. Arnel Sancianco's multilevel design serves to underscore the many levels on which this memorable piece functions, though it might've benefited from an in-the-round configuration as some speech is lost when actors are in the stage's farthest reaches. The dialogue is so peppered with references to everything from Anton Chekhov to pop star Drake that multiple viewings are recommended to take it all in. Hutch Pimentel directed. —Dmitry Samarov

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