Chi-Raq’s source material, a one-man sideshow act, and reviews of more new theater shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Chi-Raq’s source material, a one-man sideshow act, and reviews of more new theater shows

The week's recommended theater: Lysistrata, Freakshow & Tell, The Cousin From Nowhere, Dating and Dragons, and Wastwater

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[Recommended] The Cousin From Nowhere Chicago Folks Operetta, which specializes in producing neglected works from the post-World War I "Silver Age" of European operetta, delivers a winning revival of German composer Eduard Künneke’s 1921 Berlin hit. Translated by Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov from the original text by Fritz Oliven (aka "Rideamus") and Herman Haller, the libretto is whimsical fluff: 18-year-old heiress Julia (Heather Youngquist) falls in love with a wandering stranger (Nicholas Pulikowski), who she thinks is her long-absent childhood sweetheart, upsetting the scheme of her greedy uncle and aunt (James Judd and Rose Guccione) to arrange a marriage for her so they can control her fortune. Under Elizabeth Margolius’s direction, the romantic farce is performed in modern dress on an abstract white set. The cast of eight skilled singers play the comedy with a touch of mischievous camp while doing full justice to the gorgeous melodies. The lush, tuneful, bouncy score—packed with lively and lyrical waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, foxtrots, and tangos—is played superbly by a 21-piece orchestra under conductor Anthony Barrese.  —Albert Williams Through 7/17: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252, chicagofolksoperetta.org, $25-$40.

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[Recommended] Dating and Dragons There are strategies involved in the games of life, romance, and play, whether it’s conquering dragons or being vulnerable enough to fall in love, and there’s a reason people don’t play these games alone. Writer Mike Ooi delivers a simple story of puppy love, pop culture, and nerdy awkwardness in this Factory Theater production—Jack (Nick Freed) is a Dungeons & Dragons-playing everyman who struggles to find a sweetheart while working in a video store. The show is wildly creative in its telling: the cast often breaks the fourth wall to make sure the audience is still in on the fun and able to follow along. It’s silly and inviting, a welcome approach to a tale of friendship. —A.J. Sørensen Through 8/13: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, The Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard, thefactorytheater.com, $10-$25.

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Eroica Set in 1966 against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, David Alex’s new 75-minute one-act concerns a small-town high school basketball coach, Victor (Felipe Carrasco), who spouts patriotic platitudes to denounce antiwar protestors, though he himself has received a medical deferment from the draft. His sister Grace (Sarah Koerner), a liberal nun, is torn between her conscience and her love for her brother, while Victor’s wife Sally (Sarah Pavlak McGuire) worries about her brother, who’s MIA in Vietnam. Enter Charles (Garrett Young), one of Victor’s former players, whose slick but shifty charm barely masks a devious hidden agenda. As secrets begin to spill out, Alex and director Maggie Speer seem to be aiming for tragedy in the vein of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. But stilted dialogue, heavy-handed moralizing, and melodramatic plotting blunt the story’s potential impact. —Albert Williams Through 8/7: Tue-Wed and Sun 7:30 PM, Sat 3 PM, Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-728-7529, redtwist.org, $20.

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Evil & Good Chicago Dance Crash has always occupied a distinctive space between flashy squad and classically trained ensemble. The dancers are versatile, agile, but they come at you with the attitude of a hip-hop crew. That attitude often leads to dark places. For Evil & Good, the company’s latest world premiere, the scenario is pretty much cut and dried from the start: nine scenes pit opposing forces against one another—like a series of old-fashioned dance-offs with an emphasis on bright spotlights, lithe solos, and a cast of nebulous characters. Much of it feels like entertainment for its own sake, akin to what you might see on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. The shtick can get tedious, but there’s hardly a moment where you won’t appreciate the skill on display. Cat Deeley would approve. —Matt de la Peña Through 7/16: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble, 773-342-4141, chicagodancecrash.com, $25.

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[Recommended] Freakshow & Tell Sideshow entertainer Thom Britton’s solo show is part performance, part demonstration. He eats fire, hammers a nail into his nose, shoves his face into a pile of broken glass, and then unveils the science that keeps him free of harm during each act. Knowing doesn’t make any of the stunts any less amazing—even though Britton explained that our heads are full of nasal passages wide enough to fit a nail, I still cringed and stared in awe as he tapped one into a nostril. Britton is a charismatic performer who appears genuinely thrilled to share how simple his seemingly death-defying acts really are. His explanations are peppered with jokes and carnival flair, making even the dullest details memorable and entertaining. Together with the preshow display of a dead flying frog, a fallout shelter radiation kit, and other odd items from the traveling educational group the College of Curiosity, I may have retained more information about science and history during a single carnival-themed night than in all my years of schooling. —Brianna Wellen Through 7/30: Sat 8 PM, The Lincoln Loft, 3036 N. Lincoln, second floor, 773-362-5324, freakshowtell.com, pay what you can.

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Generation Gap Cortney is a 25-year-old South Carolina girl living in Chicago. She used to have a grown-up corporate job but quit in a huff when she felt disrespected as a woman. Since then she’s been stuck in slacker mode, drinking Buds with her buddy when she’s not delivering cookies for a bakery. Then mom shows up to set her right. Cortney experiences a series of feminist "flashbacks": her grandma as a young spitfire who refuses to be wooed the old-fashioned way, her mom as a new employee getting hazed by male colleagues, and Cortney herself as a kid growing up in a sitcom household. The result, apparently, is an awakening. Well, that was easy. At under 50 minutes, Mary Beth Smith’s script makes a short play but a very long public service announcement, vaguely conceptualized and indifferently staged. —Tony Adler Through 8/2: Tue 8 PM, Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont, 773-697-9693, theannoyance.com, $8.

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A Jewish Joke In this one-man show, a successful Jewish screenwriter named Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson, who cowrote the play) confronts the anti-Communist fervor of 1950s Hollywood. As Bernie scrambles to avoid being blackballed, he lights up the stage with off-the-cuff yiddishisms and wild office shenanigans. The play’s humor comes in large part from Johnson’s physical presence—his duck-footed walk and drooped shoulders impart a man who is always performing, no matter the occasion. As he tells Jewish jokes from his "collection," a box full of index cards, Johnson wonderfully channels a bygone era of Jewish funnymen, who never forgot to laugh, even during the terrors of the McCarthy witch hunt. —Max Maller Through 7/31: Wed 3 PM, Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000, ajewishjoke.com, $32.

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[Recommended] Lysistrata Can a comedy from 411 BC be relevant today? When it comes to the battle of the sexes, Aristophanes’s play—in which the women famously save Greece by abstaining from sex—proves that it can. In Side Project’s retelling, contemporary audiences will no doubt relate to the women’s disgust with a never-ending war (with no identifiable signs of progress) that costs the lives of their husbands and sons; to bring peace to their villages and deliver comedic relief, the women rebel by blue-balling their men into submission. Adam Webster’s adaptation rhymes just a bit too much, but the strong cast sustains the power of this 2,500-year-old message: everyone can do something to obtain peace, even if it means doing nothing. —A.J. Sørensen Through 7/24: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Side Project Theatre Company, 1439 W. Jarvis, 773-973-2150, thesideproject.net, $20.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream Last summer Hayley Rice codirected a wonderful production of The Winter’s Tale with her mother, First Folio cofounder Alison C. Vesely. This year Rice directs alone, and though her stab at A Midsummer Night’s Dream indicates her potential, the uneven show suggests that she needs more work. Elements of this oft-produced summer comedy work like a dream—Elsa Hiltner’s costumes are a delight. But the show is marred by miscasting—Michael Joseph Mitchell, for example, is too weak to be either Theseus or Oberon, but might have made a killer Peter Quince—and too many over-the-top comic performances. And of the four lovers at the center of the play, only Sarah Wisterman, as the frequently put-upon Hermia, performs with the kind of passion that makes the Bard’s lines soar. —Jack Helbig Through 8/14: Wed-Sun 8:15 PM, First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st and Rt. 83, Oak Brook, firstfolio.org, $29-$39.

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Spectacle Spectacular: A Fully Improvised Song and Dance Musical Improvisers the Glitter Island Gang have teamed up with the J. Lindsay Brown Dance Company for this intermittently enjoyable production, in which a brand-new musical is made up on the spot. On the night I saw the show, an audience suggestion of "gooey" inspired a shaggy tale about a town being taken over by sentient slime. As you’d expect from a large cast working without a script or choreography, things can get chaotic and, despite the efforts of directors Brown and Neil Figuracion, the two troupes don’t ever fully coalesce. The dancers in particular seem unsure of what to do with themselves. It falls to the improvisers to scrounge up some laughs and make sense of the plot, though they struggle to maintain focus. —Zac Thompson Through 7/31: Sun 8 PM, MCL Chicago, 3110 N. Sheffield, mclchicago.com, $20.

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[Recommended] Wastwater Simon Stephens’s intimate, hyperrealistic play is a study in quiet desperation. Set in the sketchy area that environs London’s Heathrow Airport—a section always on the verge of being demolished for runway expansion—the show concerns a handful of sad nobodies as expendable as the world they inhabit. Though present in three tightly written but frustrating and ambiguous two-person scenes, the audience never really gets to know them. That is, of course, the point, sufficiently made clear by director Robin Witt and her finely tuned ensemble; Caroline Neff is particularly strong as a thuggish human trafficker. This is not for people who like their theater big and loud—this troubling play aims to do no more than expose fear in a handful of dust. —Jack Helbig Through 8/13: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn, 312-458-0722, steeptheatre.com, $10-$35. v

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