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Our top picks for fall theater

Playwright Lucas Hnath heats up, Rashid Johnson stages Dutchman in a bath house, Larry Yando takes on King Lear, and more must-sees.

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Lucas Hnath - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Lucas Hnath

Isaac's Eye and Death Tax

Isaac's Eye 9/10-12/7, Writers Theatre, 664 Vernon, Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org. $35-$65. Death Tax

9/12-10/12, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org. $40-$50.

You might describe 2014 as Lucas Hnath's annus mirabilis. But then you might've said the same about the year before that. Two thousand twelve seems to have worked out pretty well for him too.

The 35-year-old playwright is certifiably hot, at least insofar as his peers are concerned. He's clearly become a darling of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, getting full productions at each of the last three annual installments (one of them involving a script cowritten with Rinne Groff and Anne Washburn). He had a couple off-Broadway premieres in 2013. And this fall, after a summer during which his Hillary and Clinton was a selection at Victory Gardens Theater's Ignition Festival, he'll see two of his plays open two days apart at two important Chicago-area venues: Isaac's Eye at Writers Theatre on September 10, Death Tax at Lookingglass on September 12.

That sort of ubiquity is usually reserved for canonical playwrights—the Shakespeares and the Shaws, the Arthur Millers and the Edward Albees.

Like many of his fellow New York University MFAs, Hnath (pronounced nayth) cultivates a quirky voice and a pronounced tendency to mess with both theatrical artifice and what most of us would regard as historical fact. Isaac's Eye is a perfect example, conflating incidents from the life of Isaac Newton, particularly Newton's nasty relationship with another great scientist of the period, Robert Hooke, and an experiment that required Newton to penetrate his own tear duct with a darning needle (nobody seems to know why). Though set in the 1600s, the play is performed in modern dress. Newton speaks in a way that Hnath likens to his own diction ("I just made him talk like me") yet acknowledges as suggesting Asperger's (which Hnath says he doesn't have). A narrator talks directly to the audience and distinguishes between fact and fiction ("Because we don't want to lie to you") by writing the facts in chalk on a wall.

Death Tax is structured more like a traditional mystery: suspecting that her daughter has paid a nurse to kill her, a rich, bedridden old lady offers the nurse more to keep her alive. But again, Hnath introduces metatheatrical devices designed to pull us out of the story­—not to mention a late leap that, Hnath says, can elicit a "kind of oddly blissful laugh" from an audience.

I asked Hnath what he thought people might get from seeing the two shows back-to-back. "Both plays have concerns related to mortality," he replied. "Legacy. Living beyond your life. Both plays invoke characters that are very concerned with living forever. And so yeah, going back and forth between two shows, you're going to get that theme explored from two very different angles. But I have no idea. I never thought about the plays being experienced back-to-back. In terms of what I would like the audience to take away, I hope both are just, you know, entertaining narrative roller-coaster rides." Tony Adler


Dutchman - PAULA COURT
  • Paula Court
  • Dutchman

Dutchman

Tue 9/16-Sun 9/21, Red Square, 1914 W. Division, 773-227-2284, performa-arts.org. $45.

Seven years ago Rashid Johnson went with a couple friends to see a revival of LeRoi Jones's Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan—the same theater where the play premiered in 1964. One of those friends was the photographer Nan Goldin. Johnson, who's black, remembers Goldin turning to him after the show and asking, "Why don't you go and kill all the white people?"

Dutchman came as a shock 50 years ago, and it's a kick in the head even now. Written by Jones while he was on his way to becoming Amiri Baraka, it offers up Clay, a tweedy twentysomething African-American man who lives with his parents in New Jersey and reads Chinese poetry. Just now he's riding a subway train through the "flying underbelly of the city." He looks up and there's Lula—a "bug zapper" of a woman, Johnson says, about a decade older than Clay and white. She gets familiar fast ("You think I want to pick you up, get you to take me somewhere, and screw me, huh?"). But this isn't conventional urban weirdness. Lula is American race sickness personified, and she's out for blood. Before she's done, she'll have pushed Clay beyond the edge, shredding his identity and sending him into a primal rage. At which point she'll deliver the coup de grace.

Evanston-born and -bred, the artist son of an academic and a businessman, Johnson acknowledges that there's some Clay in the way he presents himself to the world. But there seems to be a strong dose of Baraka in him too: he recalls his mom reading him poems from Baraka's The Dead Lecturer when he was seven or eight years old. Maybe that's why seeing the Cherry Lane Dutchman revival "sparked something," as he puts it. "I thought there was incredible complexity. And language—I thought it was poetry." And then there are what he mildly refers to as "questions . . . about how relations have changed, both gender- and race-wise, in the last 50 years."

The spark was strong enough that Johnson directed his own version of Dutchman in New York last year. Now he's bringing it home to Chicago.

Don't expect to find it in a conventional theater, though. Johnson's performance venue will be the Red Square Turkish and Russian baths in Wicker Park. He used to go there years ago, when it was the Division Street Baths, to read and eavesdrop on his fellow sweaters. Now he considers it an ideal spot for an overheated confrontation. "There was no light, nothing to tell you what time it was," he remembers. Claustrophobic, disconnected, intensely humid—a place of dripping tiles­—Red Square is meant to be a character in the passion of Clay. And besides, there's a certain historical accuracy to it: "I was also thinking about the New York subways in the 60s, prior to them being air-conditioned. . . . I wanted a way to mimic that, and the bathhouse felt like the most natural way." —Tony Adler


Larry Yando in King Lear - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Larry Yando in King Lear

King Lear

9/9-11/9: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com. $48-$96.

At 55, Larry Yando is the first to admit he's on the young side for King Lear. The actor, who's already played such complicated characters as Scrooge, Roy Cohn, Richard Nixon, and the Lion King's Scar, is now going to tackle the role that is often the capstone to an actor's career, the role Shakespeareans take a lifetime to prepare for. "I thought in 20 years maybe I will get to play Lear," he says. But making Lear merely middle-aged, not senile, is part of director Barbara Gaines's vision. "Barbara's thing is more about [Lear's] dementia than his age," Yando explains. "And one can lose one's sanity at any age." A month ago Ira Glass famously tweeted that King Lear "sucks" and is "not relatable." Perhaps the 55-year-old Glass would find Yando's younger Lear more relatable, and less sucky. Jack Helbig


Fail-Safe - JON COLE
  • Jon Cole
  • Fail-Safe

Fail-Safe

9/15-10/14, Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, 773-528-9696, strawdog.org, $15.

Among the movies released in 1964—that is, besides Mary Poppins and The Incredible Mr. Limpet­­—was Crack in the World, a sci-fi cautionary tale about scientists who unintentionally tear our planet in two by detonating an atomic bomb near its core. Another was The Horror of Party Beach, in which radioactive waste mutates water plants into what the promo called "weird atomic beasts who live off human blood!!!" And of course we all remember Goldfinger, the James Bond classic whose title fiend plans to irradiate America's gold supply. But hands down the scariest of the atomic scare movies that year was a quiet, earnest, black-and-white effort by Sidney Lumet called Fail-Safe.

Based on a 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail-Safe has basically the same plot as Dr. Strangelove (which also came out in 1964), sans satire: a glitch in America's defense system triggers a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and both nations' leaders have to deal with, well, the fallout.

Now Strawdog Theatre company members Anderson Lawfer and Nikki Klix have adapted the Burdick-Wheeler book for the stage. What drew them to a tale from the duck-and-cover era? Pretty much everything, it seems. In an e-mail, Lawfer cites "the Edward Snowden incident, and the threat of nuclear war from all over the world now, not just in Russia." Adds Klix, also by e-mail, and in terms that resonate with particular power after a violent summer: "We're still terrified of human beings with weapons. It's 50 years after the cold war and 50 years of better technology and yet we're still prone to human error and corruption. 'Collateral damage' exists on the streets of Chicago. It's everywhere. . . . New lingo, new conflicts, same miscommunication and dependency on technology." —Tony Adler


Playwright Christopher Chen - ABIE HADJITARKHANI
  • Abie Hadjitarkhani
  • Playwright Christopher Chen

The Hundred Flowers Project

10/16-11/23: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 8 PM, Sun 4 PM, Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church, Pierce Hall, 77 W. Washington, chicagotemple.org. $35, $25 previews.

"Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend." From May 1956 to June 1957, that was the motto of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Intellectuals were invited to criticize the Communist Party openly—until Mao suddenly reversed course, denouncing the critics as "rightists" and sentencing them to hard labor in the country. In The Hundred Flowers Project, San Francisco-based playwright Christopher Chen doesn't dramatize these events directly, but freedom of expression turning ominous is a central theme. The metatheatrical drama deals with a troupe of actors trying to create a play about Mao, but group dynamics, ubiquitous digital media, and something like the weight of history push their efforts in an increasingly menacing and surreal direction. Silk Road Rising's midwest premiere is directed by Joanie Schultz, who proved adept at handling imaginary worlds collapsing on one another in her staging of the Goodman Theatre's Venus in Fur last spring. —Zac Thompson


La Reunión - ALEJANDRO BUSTOS
  • Alejandro Bustos
  • La ReuniĆ³n

La Reunión

Sat 11/1, 7:30 PM; Sun 11/2, 3 PM and 7:30 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660, mcachicago.org, $28, members $22, students $10.

The Museum of Contemporary Art's Global Stage Series brings some of the most exciting international artists to town, and this fall it'll host Chile's Teatro en el Blanco for the North American premiere of Trinidad Gonzalez's La Reunión, written in 2012 during the height of Chile's student-led protests calling for education reform. Once silenced under the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean theater scene has blossomed into a force for social activism and historical revision. Here, Gonzalez and actor Guillermo Calderón use current events to rewrite the past. The one-act envisions a meeting between an imprisoned Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella that takes place an hour before the monarch's death, and their verbal struggle implicitly links to Chile's contemporary struggles. The minimalist production,­­ in which a round table is the only set for the two actors, and the company's focus on theater as a poetic and political space set the stage for a work that collapses and confounds our sense of history, probing ideas such as who determines what becomes the narrative of record, and how such maneuvering shaped our understanding of the Americas today. —Suzanne Scanlon

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