Barney the Elf, Hellcab, and ten more new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Barney the Elf, Hellcab, and ten more new stage shows

The best-ever explanation for what makes reindeer fly and the 25th anniversary of a Chicago classic are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] Barney the Elf As a non-Christian, I have no brief for Christmas. But Other Theatre brings a whole chorusful of gold lamé briefs to this oddly compelling holiday tribute. I say “oddly” because the 90-minute show sure as hell doesn’t follow the usual path to Yuletide cheer. Santa Claus has died, to start, leaving behind a widow and one grown son, Junior, who’s expected to follow in dad’s footsteps. But Junior is a jerk, bent on introducing efficiencies at the expense of joy. One of his first acts is to fire Barney, whose exuberance makes his fellow elves entirely too happy. That sends Barney to Chicago, where he meets drag queen Zooey and learns a few things about himself, while we get the best-ever explanation for what makes reindeer fly. The whole ensemble is jolly and deft, but Roy Samra’s Barney is incandescent, especially when singing a surprisingly unironic “O Holy Night.” Dixie Lynn Cartwright’s Zooey is endearingly wry. —Tony Adler

[Recommended] The Best of Days Writer and director Christopher Ellis invents a contemporary pagan-centric Christmas celebration. Juniper and Lark, enigmatic storytellers living in a remote cabin, relate three intricate folktales that illuminate the poignant, obscure origins of many Christmas traditions (broom-riding La Befana, for example, flies through the night searching for the Christ child and bringing gifts to children until vainglorious Saint Nicholas muscles in on her turf). All the while the audience, seated at communal tables, feast on wine, wassail, Christmas pie and sugar cookies. Performers DeZhané Rouse and Zoë Sapienza bring refreshing irreverence to their serious task in this Voice of the City production. With more streamlined material, the stories could be as satisfying as the food. —Justin Hayford

Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho-Holy Night - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the Artist
  • Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho-Holy Night

Christmas Bingo: It’s a Ho-Ho-Holy Night Vicki Quade may have retired from her official responsibilities within the Catholic church long ago, but she’s still Mother Superior of the long-running nun-stalgia genre of theater comedy. Since 2011, the Late Nite Catechism coauthor has been hosting various iterations of bingo upstairs at the Royal George Theatre, where she folds in games, cheeky novelty prizes, crowd work, written stand-up bits, and trivia such as the church’s contentious history with the movie Miracle on 34th Street. It’s not the most on-point stand-up in Chicago (she’s just now getting to the “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” bit), but it is a good-natured back-and-forth between Quade and her mostly secular audience. Does it need the intermission or the Easter vigil-length running time? It does not. —Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol

[Recommended] A Christmas Carol This is the 40th annual edition of Goodman Theatre’s popular adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale, but there’s nothing tired or formulaic in Henry Wishcamper’s intensely emotional staging of Tom Creamer’s durable script. The production—rich in visual and dramatic texture—deftly balances sentiment, comedy, spooky terror, and moral gravity as it retells the familiar but ever-fresh story of a miserly, misanthropic moneylender offered a chance at redemption. The scenic design and special effects are stunning, the music (played live by a quartet of onstage actor-musicians) is alternately melancholy and merry, and the acting by a diverse 26-member ensemble is impeccable. Dickens’s theme that the wealthy have an obligation to help provide for the less fortunate is amplified here by some pointedly relevant commentary about religious bigotry. At the center of the show is actor Larry Yando’s smart, heartfelt portrayal of Scrooge, the skinflint whose spiritual transformation (prompted by some supernatural intervention) drives the story. It’s quite wonderful to watch Yando’s Scrooge edge painfully toward the change he finally, fully embraces. —Albert Williams

[Recommended] A Gilbert and Sullivan Jewelry Box An evening of Gilbert & Sullivan deep cuts in two parts, this is the maiden voyage for Transgressive Theatre-Opera in collaboration with the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company of Hyde Park. The double bill opens with a tedious sort of tribute to two works from the tail end of the Savoy opera duo’s canon, The Grand Duke (1896) and Utopia Limited (1893). Adapter Aaron Hunt, also the company’s artistic director, salvages a decent 90-minute concert from what he describes, in his additional capacity as the show’s narrator, as a pair of flops. But Cox and Box (1847) is another story. To see sopranos Teaira Burge and Celeste Peake go to work on this one-act farce as two gents renting a single apartment, unbeknownst to one another, is simply to fall in love with them. Susan Gosdick plays Bouncer, their landlord. —Max Maller

Hamlet It’s difficult to figure out which version of Hamlet director Alex Demetralis is hoping to educe in his reworking of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Aside from prodigious editing and plot tweaking (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, curiously, on the castle’s night watch in the very first scene), he’s set the action on three holidays—Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day—and injected ample attendant foolishness: King Claudius first enters in a dime-store devil costume at a Halloween party, goofy holiday music accompanies every scene change. Yet he also has his cast play most everything with utter earnestness, resulting in a two-hour production continuously at odds with itself. Considering the cast’s unsuccessful efforts to conquer Shakespeare’s language, sticking with goofiness might have worked better. —Justin Hayford

The Agency Theater Collective's Hellcab - BILL RICHERT
  • Bill Richert
  • The Agency Theater Collective's Hellcab

[Recommended] Hellcab It used to be said that every Chicago theater actor worth his salt has been in it, but the Agency Theater Collective’s 25th-anniversary staging of Will Kern’s love letter to the lowly taxi driver is still heartfelt and hilarious, and it doesn’t look any worse for the wear. Rusty Schwimmer shines as the nameless cabdriver shepherding the rich, the poor, the lovestruck, and the out-and-out crazy around Chicago a few days before Christmas 1992. She plays the part with equal doses of weariness and wonder, allowing her passengers to star in their brief time in the backseat, as every experienced hack knows to do. Though the play is a collection of unrelated vignettes, by the end it nevertheless captures the patchwork nature of city life. Hellcab had been a mainstay of Profiles Theatre, so it’s worth noting that casting a woman in the leading role is a bit of poetic justice, going some ways toward reclaiming it as a holiday classic the whole city can celebrate. Sommer Austin directed. —Dmitry Samarov

The Artistic Home's Miracle on 34th Street: A Radio Play - YEVA DASHEVSKY/MERCURY PHOTO
  • Yeva Dashevsky/Mercury Photo
  • The Artistic Home's Miracle on 34th Street: A Radio Play

Miracle on 34th Street: A Radio Play Using the script for a 1948 broadcast of Lux Radio Theatre’s adaptation of the popular 1947 movie, director Kayla Adams and her ensemble have crafted a production that captures the old film’s sweetness without slipping too often into its saccharine excesses. Truly, this is one of the shallowest of holiday favorites, lacking even the toothless social commentary of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life and instead urging blind faith in the existence of . . . Santa Claus. Still, it is entertaining. The production captures the hysteria of a live broadcast, and the performances are crisp and sharp. —Jack Helbig

Pine - MATTHEW FREER
  • Matthew Freer
  • Pine

Pine December is not the time for site-specific outdoor theater. Especially if it runs over two hours. Arianna Soloway has a bright idea in staging Pine, Jacqui Honess-Martin’s Christmas-tree-lot workplace drama, in an actual Christmas tree lot, but she doesn’t take full advantage of the setting: with the audience arranged around a stage area, the production be performed anywhere (ideally somewhere less cold and loud), and the location comes across as a gimmick. The script is filled with typical postgrad anxieties; forceful, nuanced performances from Elise Spoerlein and Aria Szalai-Raymond provide the fire that warms this chilly production. (Blankets and heaters are provided, but dress warmly.) —Oliver Sava

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Rock 'N' Roll Musical - COURTESY PEARL POET PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy Pearl Poet Productions
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Rock 'N' Roll Musical

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Rock ’N’ Roll Musical A giant knight with a green body (Jack Wright), interrupting King Arthur’s Christmas Eve feast, challenges Sir Gawain (Chris Causer) to knock his head off with a shiny ax. We’re in the Middle Ages, clearly. Gawain, who says “gramercy” instead of “thanks,” is a medieval kind of guy. He goes on quests, wards off the temptress Lady Grey (Caroline Kidwell), and keeps asking the way to a mysterious Green Chapel in the woods for a rematch with green face. And that’s fine. But what’s Causer doing singing hair metal? How come he and the indeed very green White, face paint and all, stop the play dead to do a cringeworthy Scorpions cover? As medieval pastiche, John C. Ashton’s show for Pearl Poet Productions takes itself too seriously. As a rock musical, it’s embarrassing. But as both together, it’s the weirdest thing on wheels. Nich Radcliffe directs. —Max Maller

Midsommer Flight's Twelfth Night - TOM MCGRATH
  • Tom McGrath
  • Midsommer Flight's Twelfth Night

[Recommended] Twelfth Night Three factors elevate this production of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing, love triangle-centered comedy by Midsommer Flight: (1) the clever and well-blocked use of the twinkly light and garden bloom-filled Lincoln Park Conservatory show-room setting; (2) the frequent flute, violin, guitar, and vocal interludes, directed by Elizabeth Rentfro, that help fill the magnificent backdrop; and (3) the hefty pair of hedge shears director Dylan S. Roberts takes to the running time, which is mowed down to a slick and mostly comprehensible 100 minutes. Stylistically, Roberts and the young cast lean into the broad silliness inherent in the story—Amy Malcom’s Malvolio in particular is given license to ham it up to 11—which serves the story well even if there aren’t any revelations. —Dan Jakes

Jamie Shriner in Wife Material - ZEKE DOLEZALEK
  • Zeke Dolezalek
  • Jamie Shriner in Wife Material

[Recommended] Wife Material Jamie Shriner’s thought-provoking one-woman show, directed by Stefan Brün, is fertile ground for both actor and audience to work through the ways today’s climate is wearing on women’s gender expression and sexuality. While this is by no means new territory, the intimate, autobiographical lens through which Shriner explores these issues is captivating. Shriner is newly married at 25, but her husband lives in England and she’s craving physical contact in a way that society won’t let her admit. She calls the show an “act of protest” and it shows, but it’s still charming and relatable. Shriner’s ten original songs, from “F***boi” to “Love Myself,” are delivered with an arena-level belt and a witty sense of humor, which elicited slam poetry-style snaps from the audience on the night I attended. —Marissa Oberlander

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