Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers . . . , and nine more new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers . . . , and nine more new stage shows

A one-woman show to buckle up for and an intimate, retro revue are among this week's best bets.

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Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies There are no big surprises in Jessica Sherr's 60-minute solo, no novel insights. Yes, Bette Davis faced sexism in the movie industry. Yes, it was lonely at the top. Even if you didn't see Feud, the recent FX series about her war with Joan Crawford, you likely know already that Davis drank to excess, smoked like a chimney, had a sharp tongue, and earned two Oscars, arguably getting robbed of a third by Vivien Leigh and the 1939 Gone With the Wind juggernaut. The main appeal of Sissies (the title, by the way, isn't homophobic, just off point: it paraphrases Davis's comment that "old age ain't no place for sissies") is Sherr herself, whose Davis isn't quite like any you've seen, adding a bright comic energy to the usual semaphore gestures and wised-up locutions. Sherr is especially wild during a passage where Davis gets randy with Howard Hughes. —Tony Adler

Drag Party Party At one point during this hour-long sketch revue directed by Bina Martin, a running motif ends with a disgruntled pageant queen wielding a purple dildo to inflict blunt-force trauma. It's swift and even awkwardly amusing, but it also speaks volumes about the nature of goings-on at the Annoyance, where the default mechanism is to be outrageous. And while I laughed hard in spurts, as when the uber-talented Anita Cannoli (Julia DeFerdinando) narrates a scene from While You Were Sleeping in her thick Jersey accent, or when a girl's night out at Sidetrack goes awry, the screwball antics of this self-described drag party tends to devolve to a level of strangeness that doesn't do justice to the individual talent on stage—these kings and queens are at their best when the dial is turned down. —Matt de la Peña

Hell in a Handbag's The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes - RICK AGUILAR
  • Rick Aguilar
  • Hell in a Handbag's The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes

The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes The transparency of the traditional sitcom presents a unique challenge to the parodist. From I Love Lucy to Bewitched to The Cosby Show, it's always apparent which societal norms are reinforced and which human impulses rendered invisible, making the effort to invert the form and bring everything repressed to the surface, as playwright David Cerda does in his new Hell in a Handbag show, an exercise in overstating the obvious. Which isn't to say this vulgar, trashy send-up of The Golden Girls isn't funny, at times outrageously so, especially given its bevy of delightful performances (Adrian Hadlock's unfiltered Sophia is particularly hilarious). But unlike Cerda's last show, Lady X: The Musical, the investigation of style provides diversion without much insight. —Justin Hayford

Theo Ubique's Jacques Brel's Lonesome Losers of the Night - ADAM VENESS
  • Adam Veness
  • Theo Ubique's Jacques Brel's Lonesome Losers of the Night

[Recommended] Jaques Brel's Lonesome Losers of the Night Some of my most treasured Sundays in Chicago have been spent sipping beer and taking in a songbook at Theo Ubique, Roger Park's gem of a hole-in-the-wall cabaret that specializes in revues. Fred Anzevino's reprisal of his and translator Arnold Johnston's 2008 hit is no exception, though the repertoire on hand cuts more deeply with a coarser sound than many such offerings—that's part of what makes these rare English-language renditions so valuable. Under the musical direction of Jeremy Ramey, four vocalists revive Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel's eminently dramatic ballads and drinking songs against the backdrop of a crumbling 1959 Amsterdam. There's only piano accompaniment, but the tradeoff for losing the brass and accordion that bolster Brel's opulent swells is taking in Joshua Stephen Kartes's rich arrangements and Randolph Johnson's stunning vocal interpretations all the more clearly. —Dan Jakes

The King and I  - MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Matthew Murphy
  • The King and I

The King and I Based on the most recent Broadway revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1951 musical, this Equity touring production offers visual beauty, fine dancing, gorgeous voices, and ethnically sensitive casting (Asian roles played by actors of Asian descent). What it lacks, though, is crucial: a properly explosive relationship between the leads. Laura Michelle Kelly has all the vocal power she needs as Anna Leonowens, a real-life Englishwoman who taught in the court of the King of Siam from 1862 to 1868. But her manner is staid and her tensions with the king tend to come off as teacher's-lounge gripes. Jose Llana's King, meanwhile, never conveys a sense of how very, very dangerous an absolute monarch—even one who wants to westernize his country—can be. Their relationship fails to catch fire pedagogically, much less romantically.
—Tony Adler

City Lit's London Assurance - ALLY NEUTZE
  • Ally Neutze
  • City Lit's London Assurance

[Recommended] London Assurance Dion Boucicoult's arch 1841 comedy of manners gets a spirited and fully committed production at City Lit. This story of bumbling boors, chiseling social climbers, and simpering fops gallivanting and scheming around the London countryside is crisply performed by a uniformly excellent cast. Their nimble way with this wordy text is a thing to behold and illustrates neatly why this play was such an influence on Oscar Wilde. While the idea of an old man marrying a much younger woman sight unseen in order to inherit her money and land might seem dated—not to say grotesque—the self-delusion and absurd conniving at the heart of this story are as current as today's headlines. Directed by Terry McCabe. —Dmitry Samarov

Oak Park Festival Theatre's Macbeth - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • Johnny Knight
  • Oak Park Festival Theatre's Macbeth

[Recommended] Macbeth Suddenly Shakespeare is relevant again. And not just because a few rabid supporters of our current thin-skinned Chief Executive—and the fearful corporate sponsors they intimidated—got their boxers in a twist over a recent staging of Julius Caesar. Even in this apolitical take on the Scottish play by Oak Park Festival Theatre, where Matthew Fahey's callow, shaved-headed Macbeth couldn't seem less like the president who shall not be named, there are moments when a canny audience member still can't help but flash on our contemporary scene. (Sample line: "Alas, poor country! Almost afraid to know itself.") But that may also be because the current production, adeptly directed by Barbara Zahora, is so simple and direct, and the bard's poetry so deftly and fluidly conveyed that we feel all the dark power in this tight, taut, tragic tale. —Jack Helbig

The Agency Theater Collective's Nautilina - ANDREW GALLANT
  • Andrew Gallant
  • The Agency Theater Collective's Nautilina

[Recommended] Nautilina For this environmental, immersive program of intersecting monologues and vignettes, the adventurous Agency Theater Collective has taken over a raw black-box space at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park and transformed it into a dumpy bar called Finnegan's. Audience members sit at tables and booths, sometimes joined by the actors as they deliver their stream-of-consciousness reflections, reminiscences, and rants. Is the faux tavern's name a reference to James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake? I don't know, but certainly the absurd, sometimes profane, sometimes funny, and sometimes downright mystifying soliloquies evoke a dreamlike experience as the characters try to escape from their emotional shells (thus, I suppose, the show's title reference to shelled sea creatures). In one sequence, a man lewdly propositions a woman at the bar, then disrobes in escalating frustration as she ignores him. Later, the same woman explodes about her job monitoring hundreds of hours' worth of EDM for possibly offensive (and therefore exciting) content. A man recalls a moment of existential awareness on a late-night el ride; a woman shares her horror at having watched a flock of pigeons cannibalize one of their own; a young soldier in combat records his final moments on video for his wife before being shot; an older man recalls his father's admonition that "boys don't cry" as they watched his mother's funeral; and an estranged heterosexual couple confront their mutual attraction—even addiction—as they reconnect. Written by Brian Foster, the well-acted production is codirected by Sommer Austin and Anna Lucero, who are also known as the comedy duo Austero. —Albert Williams

Brendan Duffy in Safe in My Own Head - LAYNE DIXON
  • Layne Dixon
  • Brendan Duffy in Safe in My Own Head

[Recommended] Safe in My Own Head The premise is cringeworthy: Brendan Duffy casts himself in his autobiographical one-man musical about his struggles with depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. But rather than an evening of self-indulgence and self-importance, Duffy delivers almost nonstop self-ridicule, portraying himself as a hapless, over-rationalizing fool who seeks out any reason, no matter how absurd, to subvert his own better judgment. He's ably thwarted by his brain, an offstage female voice (the delightful Natalie Moretti) with a penchant for chipper downers ("You look like you have the first stages of lupus," she chirps when he glances in the morning mirror). Duffy's pop/doo-wop score is clean and tuneful, and his performance is candid, coy, and commanding. Director Jenn Noyes lets real darkness seep into this deceptively light show. —Justin Hayford

Tempel Lizzipans - JEFF A. GOLDBERG
  • Jeff A. Goldberg
  • Tempel Lizzipans

[Recommended] Tempel Lizzipans You have to admire the graceful way the folks who put together the show at Tempel Farms are able to balance their desire to inform newbies like me about the Lipizzan breed with their need to impress seasoned devotees. Of course, the breed's backstory is pretty compelling: among other things, they were imported to the Royal Court of Austria from Spain in the 16th century and subsequently saved from destruction in WW II by General Patton. The actual show is fast-paced and accessible, and includes chances to see cavorting foals, novice young stallions, and the polished work of experienced older horses executing both classical and Olympic-style dressage. Those who wish to may pet the horses in the stable after, or talk to their riders. —Jack Helbig

When the Fog Begins to Lift, at the Annoyance - NIKKI LOEHR
  • Nikki Loehr
  • When the Fog Begins to Lift, at the Annoyance

When the Fog Begins to Lift The lights come up on an empty stage. Two audience members with duct-tape mustaches storm forward. Surprise! They were in on the gag! So begins When the Fog Begins to Lift, a sketch comedy so meta it calls out its own meta-ness. Like when painful memories trigger a freeze and the Kill Bill soundtrack, and the only character aware of this meta-on-meta device wants to kill (Bill) himself. The plot is loosely about destroying quaint Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but I lost track when the actors—powering through lines like kids through Halloween candy—introduced or called back townsfolk by holding up wigs next to their wigs, then running off- and onstage in a hail of "fuck"-storms. Their vitriol and "fucks" are aimed mostly at the stage manager, whom they say isn't good enough to be in the show. But he's the only one tempering metamissteps with genial smiles. He comes out during blackouts and rearranges chairs, is caught onstage when the lights come up, reamed out by hopped-up actors, heading off overwhelmed with glee to be part of the show—even if the fourth wall of this jagged rhombus has already dissipated. —Steve Heisler

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