Choir Boy, Foxfinder, and 12 more stage shows to see now | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Choir Boy, Foxfinder, and 12 more stage shows to see now

A play by Moonlight author Tarell Alvin McCraney and a paranoiac drama by British playwright Dawn Hall are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] Blue/Orange The adventurous Runcible Theatre Company, which specializes in offbeat English fare rarely tackled by larger troupes here, delivers a crisp and compelling rendition of Joe Penhall's chilling yet hilarious dark comedy, a 2000 hit for the National Theatre of Great Britain. It concerns a power struggle between two white doctors in the hidebound National Health Service over the fate of a black psychiatric patient, Christopher (Nathaniel Andrew), who claims to be the son of Idi Amin Dada, the brutal dictator of 1970s Uganda. Christopher—having used up his 28 NHS-allotted days of treatment and observation—is set to be released from the hospital. The passionate, sometimes rash young Dr. Flaherty (Owen Hickle Edwards) believes Christopher is schizophrenic and wants to keep him for further care. But his complacent, status-conscious mentor, Dr. Smith (Stephen Fedo), insists Christopher should be sent back to his impoverished Afro-Caribbean community to live among "people who think just like him"—something Christopher both desires and dreads. Penhall's peek down the rabbit hole of the government-subsidized health system tackles issues ranging from the mysteries of mental illness to white privilege, racism, and career-conscious power games. The actors in Andrew Root's intimate staging in the Royal George Theatre's tiny Gallery studio deliver Penhall's sardonically sharp-edged dialogue with impeccable precision. —Albert Williams

Patrick Agada, Don Tieri, and Christopher W. Jones in Choir Boy - DEAN LA PRAIRIE
  • Dean La Prairie
  • Patrick Agada, Don Tieri, and Christopher W. Jones in Choir Boy

[Recommended]Choir Boy Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Brother/Sister Plays" take us to an urban ghetto full of Yoruba deities, his Head of Passes to a bayou home where Job has been reincarnated as an elderly black lady. This 2012 work is conventional by comparison, but potent all the same. Set at a staid all-black, all-boys college prep school, it tells the familiar tale (Philip Roth's stories come to mind) of a smart, ambitious kid trying to keep his balance in a culture that only conditionally accepts him. That kid, Pharus, has been able to get away with being gay by virtue of his status as star of the school's vaunted gospel choir. McCraney's startlingly intimate writing totes up the cost to him and others. Under Michael Menendian's direction, Christopher W. Jones makes Pharus an affecting combination of cunning and vulnerability; choreographer Breon Arzell and music director Frederick Harris supply sharp musical punctuation. —Tony Adler

Steppenwolf for Young Adults' The Crucible - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Steppenwolf for Young Adults' The Crucible

The Crucible Steppenwolf for Young Adults presents Arthur Miller's renowned parable of American witch trials, both ancient and modern. Arnel Sancianco's austere, imposing set design dominates and often overwhelms every other aspect of this production: the three enormous wooden rafters literally hanging over the stage evoke the absolute authority of court and clergy but also dwarf the performers. The moral absolutism of Miller's play is likely best suited for the teenagers the Steppenwolf is aiming this run at. But odd blocking, in which one character often obscures another, blunts its black-and-white message. That the young girls' frolic in the woods—which leads to all the trouble—is evoked with a generic contemporary interpretive dance and Reverend Parris is inexplicably clad in parachute pants undercuts the solemnity of the proceedings as well. Jonathan Berry directed. —Dmitry Samarov

A Red Orchid Theatre's Evening at the Talk House - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • A Red Orchid Theatre's Evening at the Talk House

Evening at the Talk House Wallace Shawn tends to build traps into his plays. You're laughing along with the witty people onstage until you notice that you've crossed over with them into something ugly—and uncomfortably familiar. This 2015 one-act gives that tendency an almost Gothic edge: It's been ten years since Robert and the gang staged Robert's unsuccessful but poetic drama, Midnight in the Clearing With Moon and Stars; now they're getting together for a reunion at one of their favorite old haunts, the Talk House. As the evening progresses we learn that monstrous practices have become commonplace in the intervening decade. Evening turns out to be a hard look at the dark side of human adaptability. It's also a little dull, despite Shade Murray's talent-saturated 90-minute production, featuring a jaw-dropping performance by HB Ward as an actor on the wrong side of the zeitgeist. That's because it's all trap: we see the trip wires too clearly and too soon. —Tony Adler

Interrobang Theatre Project's Foxfinder - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • Interrobang Theatre Project's Foxfinder

[Recommended]Foxfinder Creating a truly loathsome villain takes special craft, and the well-mannered, pious one at the center of Dawn King's 2011 one-act paranoiac drama is a real doozy. A 19-year-old inspector (chillingly played by Jack Olin) arrives at the farm of a married couple (Alexandra Fisher, David Anthony Marshall) for a government-mandated stay to look for signs of foxes, the supposed cause of suffering all across Britain. In the vein of The Crucible and the more conspiratorial works of Harold Pinter, Interrobang Theatre Project's production, directed by Margarett Knapp, gets the blood boiling and taps into grand societal-scale themes without ever zooming out of the heroes' domestic and claustrophobic story of grief and survival. —Dan Jakes

Steep Theatre's The Invisible Hand - LEE MILLER
  • Lee Miller
  • Steep Theatre's The Invisible Hand

[Recommended] The Invisible Hand Voraciously capitalistic U.S. banker Nick, kidnapped by America-hating Pakistani insurgents, strikes a bargain with his seemingly righteous captors: give him a year and access to his online trading account, and he'll raise his $10 million ransom. Soon his putative enemy, idealistic revolutionary Bashir, is drunk on short sells. It's an ingenious conceit that allows for resonant collisions—ideological, economic, and spiritual—among desperate characters and the cultures they represent. As animated graduate seminars go, Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar's 2012 play is excellent. But Akhtar's intellectual acumen often exceeds his dramatic abilities, as underdeveloped characters, predictable plotting, and ponderous dialogue abound. The cast of this Steep Theatre production is superlative, led by Joel Reitsma as the pathetic, contemptible Nick, make the two-hour affair consistently fascinating but only intermittently compelling. Audrey Francis directed. —Justin Hayford

Lady Faust Kill kind men to save suffering women. It's a strange final message for Sharai Bohannon and Sophie Duntley's new adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century tragedy about a man who sells his soul to the devil, which reimagines Marlowe's hero as a woman struggling to overcome systemic misogyny in Depression-era America. The plot begins simply enough but becomes needlessly complicated without fully exploring the challenges facing Lady Faust (Torey Byrne) and other women of the time. Duntley's flat direction doesn't reflect the high stakes of the script, and playing this story straight is especially detrimental in the noisy Public House space, where the actors can barely compete with the sound of their footsteps on the creaking set. —Oliver Sava

Other Theatre Company's The Making of an American Folk Hero - CARIN SILKAITIS
  • Carin Silkaitis
  • Other Theatre Company's The Making of an American Folk Hero

The Making of an American Folk Hero Martin Zimmerman's sketchy, effortful "comedic graphic novel for the stage" opens with a gripping bit of dark comedy. Failed, talentless actor Renzo blunders through the preparation for his greatest performance—a live-streamed suicide—only to have his would-be final moment interrupted when his old college roommate, David, now a congressman, knocks on the door. From here, little makes sense. David offers to pay Renzo to dress in a superhero costume and call himself Volo Publicus, which will somehow save some public housing units, already devastated by floods, from the governor's bulldozer. Renzo does, and Volo becomes a national hero for reasons that remain exasperatingly murky for 90 minutes. Director Kelly Howe's awkward world-premiere staging for the Other Theatre Company sheds little light. —Justin Hayford

First Folio Theatre's The Man-Beast - MAIA ROSENFELD
  • Maia Rosenfeld
  • First Folio Theatre's The Man-Beast

[Recommended] The Man-Beast Casting is everything, as Elizabeth Laidlaw and Aaron Christensen prove in Joseph Zettelmaier's two-person thriller, receiving its world-premiere production at First Folio Theatre. Zettlemaier's story, set in 18th-century France, is a fine yarn in its own right—a rough-hewn hunter conspires with a witchy wise woman to defraud the king of some werewolf bounty. But it's Laidlaw and Christensen, both at the top of their game, who bring out the best in it as well as in each other; their every scene crackles with tension (sexual and otherwise). Hayley Rice directs, though it's hard to say whether she coaxed these explosive performances or just lit the fuse and got out of the way. —Jack Helbig

Quinn Kelsey in Lyric Opera's Rigoletto</i - TODD ROSENBERG
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • Quinn Kelsey in Lyric Opera's Rigoletto

[Recommended] Rigoletto You can't sweat the details in Rigoletto. The plot requires suspension of disbelief, especially in its critical scenes of abduction and murder. What's made this mid-19th-century opera by Verdi (based on a Victor Hugo play) an enduring favorite is the complexity of its bitter and passionate title character, the pathos of his predicament, and the composer's magnificently soaring music. Since his days at the Ryan Opera Center, baritone Quinn Kelsey has made this heartbreaking role his own; his performance in this not-to-be-missed Lyric Opera production is bolstered by superb soprano Rosa Feola as his self-sacrificing daughter, Gilda, and dashing tenor Matthew Polenzani as the libertine who seduces her. The drama's heightened by Michael Yeargan's surrealistic sets (designed for San Francisco Opera and inspired by de Chirico paintings), featuring sharp shadows, deserted arcades, and blood-red interiors on an ominously raked stage. Marco Armiliato conducts the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus. —Deanna Isaacs

Poetic Forum Collective's Saint Joan - CHRISTIAN CAMPBELL
  • Christian Campbell
  • Poetic Forum Collective's Saint Joan

[Recommended] Saint Joan The Joan of Arc that George Bernard Shaw created in 1924 was a revolutionary anarchist warrior. Equal parts Napoleon and Jesus Christ, she burned at the stake for the "heresies" of speaking truth to power and of claiming inspiration from God. But we're in new territory here, as this adaptation from director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper and the Poetic Forum Collective can testify. Boasting a fabulous all-female cast, this staging shifts from the castles of 15th-century Europe to the offices and boardrooms of the present day. The lords are ladies, the kings, queens; the court of the honorable Dauphin meets around a conference table, the chairs of state are swivel chairs. And this, rather improbably, I'd say, is Shaw on fleek. Don't believe me? After five minutes of Christabel Donkor as the baddest Robert de Baudricourt ever seen, you will. —Max Maller

UniverSoul Circus There's a sometimes charming casualness to this one-ring circus, founded in 1994 by Cedric Walker and led in its 2017 iteration by low-key ringmaster Lucky Malatsi. At times it can feel like the show's being devised on the sport, but it"s clear the slouchy looseness is just an act meant to help the audience relax—as if it could in the face of acts like the trio of contortionists called the Bone Breakers or the motorcycle team who repeatedly send their machines careening crazily over the stands. The nearly three-hour-long spectacle also features lots and lots of show-stopping audience-participation bits—maybe too many. —Jack Helbig

Catherine Dvorak in Wasteland Hero - COURTESY REUTAN COLLECTIVE
  • Courtesy Reutan Collective
  • Catherine Dvorak in Wasteland Hero

[Recommended] Wasteland Hero Reutan Collective's third production, a dystopian original by local actor Kyle Encinas, is an empowering hero's journey with two strong female characters at its center. Wynne (Nicky Jasper) and Justine (Kate Lass) are sisters struggling to gain independence and survive in the vast wasteland formerly known as the midwest. The enemy, a malicious group called the Cabal is at the gate, literally, and in this case, pressure forms two badass wonder women who leave their overprotective father (Bobby Hoffman) eating his words. Jasper and Lass breathe life and comedy into the plot with their Broad City-esque repartee; Kim Fukawa is likewise spirited and sarcastic as their aunt Cat, a retired mercenary.
—Marissa Oberlander

Matthew Hoelter in Witi, an Interactive Show - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Matthew Hoelter in Witi, an Interactive Show

Witi, an Interactive Show At its best, Matthew Hoelter's comedy is reminiscent of the movie Her. Audience members are asked to download an app for their phones in order to teach Witi, a Siri or Alexa type, about pure creation. We drew pictures, played music, and took selfies for about ten minutes. Then the software failed, iO's rudimentary network became overloaded by the number of phones, and constant crashing forced the show to an early end. Hoelter says he's since moved his program onto a dedicated server, in which case Witi should be a ton more fun—a shared demonstration of how cold, hard AI is capable of creativity rather than a show of how technology is once again failing to bring people together.
—Steve Heisler

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