Blood at the Root, The? Unicorn? Hour?, and eight more new theater reviews | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Blood at the Root, The? Unicorn? Hour?, and eight more new theater reviews

A drama based on the Jena Six and an unclassifiable show at the Neo-Futurarium are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] Blood at the Root Dominique Morrisseau's play inspired by the Jena Six case, in which six black teenagers were initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate after nooses were hung from a tree on campus in their small, mostly white Louisiana town, is given a furious and urgent staging by the Yard and Jackalope Theatre Company. From the moment the audience enters through a metal detector to take their seats before the classroom/football field/school hallway set, the tension is palpable, and it doesn't let up until the show's end. The cast, composed entirely of current and recent high-schoolers, talk, sing, rap, and dance their message with a passion impossible to ignore. Blood at the Root vividly illustrates the near impossibility of getting through one's teenage years—fraught in the best-case scenario—unscathed when also having to tackle larger societal problems. It's a necessary and evocative production all-around. —Dmitry Samarov

Redtwist Theatre's Circle Mirror Transformation - JAN ELLEN GRAVES
  • Jan Ellen Graves
  • Redtwist Theatre's Circle Mirror Transformation

[Recommended] Circle Mirror Transformation This 2009 work by Annie Baker, whose The Flick won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama, chronicles the progress of a six-week "adult creative drama" workshop in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont. The earnest teacher, Marty (Lynda Shadrake), leads her pupils through rounds of theater games, trust exercises, and improvisation—which in Marty's less-than-sure hands prove to be less effective as acting techniques than as emotional outlets for her students. They include shy 16-year-old Lauren (Talia Payomo), who would rather be working on scenes than improv; Schultz (Michael Sherwin), a carpenter, and former actress Theresa (Emily Tate), both recovering from painful breakups with other partners and attracted to each other with predictably unsatisfying results; and Marty's middle-aged ex-hippie husband, James (Adam Bitterman). Baker's precise, pause-punctuated use of fragmented speech recalls the early work of David Mamet and Harold Pinter. Under Scott Weinstein's direction for Redtwist Theatre, the fine ensemble convey their characters' shifting relationship dynamics with well-crafted body language and vocal inflections. —Albert Williams

Jomar Ferreras in NightBlue's Disney's Tarzan - DREW PETERSON
  • Drew Peterson
  • Jomar Ferreras in NightBlue's Disney's Tarzan

Disney's Tarzan NightBlue's revival of the 2006 Broadway musical version of the 1999 Disney movie (based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's much-adapted 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes) has everything you need for a great show—a strong cast, an ear-pleasing orchestra, an interesting set and costumes, focused, well-paced direction (by Kevin Bellie)—everything, that is, but a show worth staging. David Henry Hwang's stage adaptation of Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White's original screenplay is bland and undramatic, as is Phil Collins's boring, cliche-filled score (sample lyric: "Put your faith in what you most believe in / Two worlds, one family / Trust your heart / Let fate decide.") Which is a shame, because Jomar Ferreras has a lot of charisma as Tarzan, and Rachel Juncker is very likable as his mate, Jane. —Jack Helbig

Shattered Globe Theatre's For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Shattered Globe Theatre's For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday Omniproduced playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote this one-act as a birthday gift for her mother, Chicago actress Kathleen Ruhl, who plays the title role in this Shattered Globe production. I guess the rest of us are supposed to care, because the playwright hardly bothers to make the content matter. Instead she sketches three scenes—five siblings at their father's deathbed, then at his wake (where his ghost putters about to little end), then in an insufferably twee version of Neverland—full of calculatedly bittersweet reminiscences, softball political observations, unchallenging religious musings, and ample unearned sentiment. It all seems designed to help us lament the nonproblem of privileged middle-aged adults' reluctance to embrace adulthood. The solution? "Thinking good thoughts." For mom's next birthday, how about a nice pair of earrings? —Justin Hayford

Alberto Mendoza in Broad Shoulders Productions' Graham Cracker - JESSE FOLKS
  • Jesse Folks
  • Alberto Mendoza in Broad Shoulders Productions' Graham Cracker

Graham Cracker We're not talking digestive biscuits here. As it's applied in Tony Mendoza's new play, "graham cracker" denotes somebody who's nominally Chicano yet acts white. I suppose the idea is that grahams have a brown tint and "cracker" can refer to white folks. But I don't know that for sure because, like a lot of things in this Broad Shoulders Productions show, the phrase isn't explained very well. In bare outline Graham Cracker is a Mexican-American family saga. Dad is a wannabe baseball star turned mean drunk, Mom is loyal but bitter, and their son—the GC—is caught in between. Little beyond these basics is clear, however. Mendoza finds neither the heart of his story nor a coherent way of telling it. Though his leads (Alberto Mendoza and Angela Vela) are endearing, there's no way they can stop the chaos. —Tony Adler

Ana Dragovich in Ghostlight Ensemble's Six Characters in Search of an Author - KATIE JARECKI
  • Katie Jarecki
  • Ana Dragovich in Ghostlight Ensemble's Six Characters in Search of an Author

Six Characters in Search of an Author In an attempt to modernize Pirandello's metatheatrical 1921 classic, Ghostlight Ensemble bookends the play's text and supplements a few "intermissions" with devised conversations based on the cast's real-life Chicago experiences. In these loose moments, Maria Burnham's cast warms up as a scrappy young bunch trying on naturalism in a rehearsal room. Where they fall short is, well . . . in Six Characters in Search of an Author. The cast of this Voice of the City presentation doesn't yet have a grasp on the stylistic and linguistic distinctions between the ghostly "character" apparitions, presented here as flat, and the actors in the rehearsal they're crashing. Whatever satire is here requires squinting. —Dan Jakes

Molly LeCaptain in Random Acts' Strangest Things! The Musical - ASHLEY PETTIT
  • Ashley Pettit
  • Molly LeCaptain in Random Acts' Strangest Things! The Musical

[Recommended] Strangest Things! The Musical The second poor ol' Barb, the hapless ancillary breakout character in Netflix's thriller series hit the small screen, just about every drag queen in America started cutting up muslin for their own interpretations. The one Christian Siebert serves up in Bryan Reynaud and Emily Schmidt's musical parody is particularly good-natured and fun, as are Molly LeCaptain's face-pulling Winona Ryder and Jaron Bellar's genre-spoofing jerk boyfriend. The full original cast of Random Acts' Netflix series parody, directed by Tommy Rivera-Vega, returns for this extension, which combines sketch-style comedy and Stranger Things-themed versions of 80s karaoke standards. Squeezing in eight episodes' worth of mythology gunks up some of the comedic rhythm, and some of the political jokes probably would have landed better back in October, but as a late-night romp this hits a lot of satisfying, low-budget musical comedy notes. —Dan Jakes

Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser in The? Unicorn? Hour?, at the Neo-Futurarium - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser in The? Unicorn? Hour?, at the Neo-Futurarium

[Recommended] The? Unicorn? Hour? As Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser strut, preen, dance, curse, and diddle their way through 70 minutes of elaborate, childish mayhem in their self-proclaimed Joy Womb (actually the dark little Neo-Futurarium lined top to bottom with comfy old bedsheets), very little makes sense. Is this precious, foul-mouthed pair in rainbow-hued face paint and Cirque du Soleil-esque unitards hosting a terrible children's television show, rehearsing an intricate, meaningless ritual, or simply fucking around to stave off despair? Who cares? Inscrutability gives the show its beguiling power, as though luminous preconscious impulses have been loosed upon our drearily rational world. Director Adrian Danzig creates an exquisitely complex tone: sunny, bewildering, unaccountably ominous. Only in the final moments, when the performers start clarifying their intentions, does the piece lose a bit of its fascination. —Justin Hayford

Julie Proudfoot and Sarah Wisterman in Artemisia's Visiting - KAT TUSHIM
  • Kat Tushim
  • Julie Proudfoot and Sarah Wisterman in Artemisia's Visiting

Visiting Bipolar and drugged out of her mind, Penny (Sarah Wisterman) is on the roof of a mental hospital, ready to kill herself. If you start a play at that pitch of intensity, you'd better keep it up lest the thing fizz out on you like a dud firework. Instead, playwright Ed Proudfoot's family melodrama, presented by Artemisia, reduces its protagonist's situation to a kind of awareness-raising case history, as if a jumble of mental health cant ("unconditional positive regard," "self-efficacy," "Rogerian theory") could somehow make a play socially productive. Penny's relatives are awful and vindictive cardboard cutout people who do nothing but insult each other and then get offended when someone returns the favor. Wisterman's performance showcases a certain bravery and dexterity, but the family itself is hopeless, canned happy ending notwithstanding. —Max Maller

Runcible Theatre's Wounds to the Face - AMANDA DE LA GUARDIA
  • Amanda de la Guardia
  • Runcible Theatre's Wounds to the Face

Wounds to the Face A young woman feels "jailed" behind her face. A surgeon tells a disfigured soldier he'll be "forever hideous." A king punishes a portraitist for making him immortal. As Australian writer Alison Croggon once put it, the 18 vignettes comprising this 1994 work by British provocateur Howard Barker form "a kind of theatrical essay on identity . . . driven not by narrative but by questions: What is a face? What does it mean to 'lose face'? What are we without a face?" While strong enough to limn those questions, Andrew Root's staging for Runcible Theatre only fitfully inhabits them. The sticking point: Barker's arch diction. Most cast members seem to equate it with grim formality, leaving just a few brave enough to play. Among the latter, Robert Bouwman, Grant Niezgodski, and Morgan McCabe give fierce, funny performances. —Tony Adler

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