Hair, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and six more new stage shows to see now | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Hair, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and six more new stage shows to see now

"The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" and the unhinged Albee classic are among this week's best bets.

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Decease, I Insist: A Funerarial Comedy Near the end of Mass St. Productions' hour-long, death-centric sketch comedy show, a dull bar mitzvah peps up when octogenarian DJ Yaya arrives, cranking the EDM and reminiscing about how hard she partied while Nazis decimated her hometown, her only dream to become a "4.5-star DJ on Yelp." It's appalling, and appallingly funny, and one of the rare moments when this five-person ensemble sticks its collective neck out. The rest of the sketches range from clever (a self-absorbed monarch desperately searching for the proper beheading outfit) to puzzling (radio actors making their own banal sound effects). Under Sophie Duntley's direction, the male performers are often overly tentative, while the two women (Rebecca Escobedo and Katie Ruppert) regularly tear things up. —Justin Hayford

Engage! A Choose-Your-Own Sci-Fight Show, at Theater Wit - COURTESY STELLAR PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy Stellar Productions
  • Engage! A Choose-Your-Own Sci-Fight Show, at Theater Wit

Engage! A Choose-Your-Own Sci-Fight Show One audience volunteer and a big, fluffy four-sided die determine the plot twists in this adventure quasi-comedy from Stellar Productions. In the right hands, onstage parlor games over seemingly nonexistent stakes can be real hoot—but not when they amount to tests of basic motor skills, as they do here. Challenges include removing huge, clearly marked cables from hooks on a board, fitting Tetris-style blocks into a much larger box, and sticking red and blue plugs into their corresponding red and blue outlets. The backs of cereal boxes are more engaging. Making things worse, the "spoof" story based on recent sci-fi fare like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Guardians of the Galaxy is less send-up than flat imitation, one aimed at an unclear demographic. Is this for kids? —Dan Jakes

Liam Quealy and ensemble in Hair - BRETT A. BEINER
  • Brett A. Beiner
  • Liam Quealy and ensemble in Hair

[Recommended] Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Mercury Theater's stirring, soulful production of Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot's "tribal love-rock musical" captures both the celebratory and elegiac aspects of this landmark work, a secular rock 'n' roll passion play about a group of teenage "flower children" whose leader, Claude, has just been drafted into the Vietnam war. Firmly grounded in the time and place (1967 New York) in which it was written and is set, the show also resonates for our moment, with its portrait of young rebels and outcasts striving to create a utopian alternative to America's historical legacy of violence and racism. Director Brenda Didier and musical director Eugene Dizon have assembled a terrific young ensemble, with passionately compelling performances coming from Liam Quealy as Claude—the Aquarian hippie messiah "destined for greatness or madness—and Michelle Lauto as his antiwar activist disciple Sheila. —Albert Williams

Life in 35mm: An Improvised Documentary, at the Annoyance - NIKKI LOEHR
  • Nikki Loehr
  • Life in 35mm: An Improvised Documentary, at the Annoyance

Life in 35mm: An Improvised Documentary I've gotten a handful of laughs from comedian Jordan Wilson every time I've seen him onstage, and he and Mark Walsh provide some inventive, go-with-the-flow long-form storytelling here. Good improvisers like these can roll with almost anything; wild-card collaborators aren't one of them. As a whole, this particular Annoyance troupe lets wigs and inscrutable character swerves work the jokes for them, and at the performance I attended, the seemingly straightforward suggestion of "space" resulted in an insurmountable number of dropped story cues. I suspect that's partly why the set felt so short, ending without much resolution. —Dan Jakes

Aurora Theater Works, Inc.'s Monticello - MARCUS DAVIS
  • Marcus Davis
  • Aurora Theater Works, Inc.'s Monticello

Monticello Local labor attorney Thomas R. Geoghegan's play, receiving its world premiere from Aurora Theater Works, Inc., imagines a meeting between a dying Thomas Jefferson and a college-age Edgar Allen Poe on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1826. In debt and despondent over the state of the nation, Jefferson is being pressured to buttress the institution of slavery by renouncing the equality of all men he championed in the Declaration. Complicating matters are Sally Hemings and other slaves on the property with whom the master is intimately involved. What does Poe have to do with any of this? Not much, and it doesn't help that the script is peppered with jokey references to his future classics like "The Raven." Geoghegan means his play as a call to action in another age of crisis but does his cause no favors by throwing together two important historical figures for an imaginary chat. The most affecting moment by far comes at the very end, when Sally Hemings reads the Declaration in full. —Dmitry Samarov

Pride Arts Center Theatre for Young Audiences' A Puppet Playdate With Grandma D - ELLA ROBINSON HARRIS
  • Ella Robinson Harris
  • Pride Arts Center Theatre for Young Audiences' A Puppet Playdate With Grandma D

A Puppet Playdate With Grandma D Is your avatar elderly and blue? Young, a thumb-sucker, and faintly violet? A sparkly fluffy quadruped in a tutu? With a minimal cast, Pride Arts Center Theatre for Young Audiences' Puppet Playdate With Grandma D presents a world of types in a single room at Grandma D's house (she’s the blue puppet). In the tradition of Nickelodeon kids' show Blue's Clues, our narrator and nonpuppet intermediary is a white male everyman mysteriously given the same name as a certain mohawked pro wrestler of color. But if he identifies as Mr. T, it's OK; as we learned in the first week’s reading, Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, and Shelagh McNicolas’s whitewashed, conflict-free picture book of transgender self-discovery I Am Jazz, the word of the day is "acceptance." Clocking in at a slim 20 minutes with a new reading each week, Puppet Playdate seems well-intentioned but also telegraphs disappointing cultural norms. —Irene Hsiao

The Taming of the Shrew, at Shakespeare on the Ridge - COURTESY ARC THEATRE
  • Courtesy Arc Theatre
  • The Taming of the Shrew, at Shakespeare on the Ridge

[Recommended] The Taming of the Shrew I've caught Arc Theatre only twice during their eight years in residence at Ridgeville Park's Shakespeare on the Ridge festival, but they're officially my favorite outdoor-Shakespeare troupe. In a town overrun with actors trying and failing to achieve some semblance of "Shakespearean scale" by bellowing, posturing, and whipping swords back and forth, the Arc puts all its focus on simple, human-size play. Directors Natalie Sallee and Teddy Boone scale everything back (rudimentary costumes and props, an 80-minute running time), giving nine actors leave to relate to one another like ordinary people (or in this all-female version, as ordinary mischievous clowns). They even make clear sense of tortuous Elizabethan verse. While the gender-muddling conclusion is confusing, most everything else is eloquent, boisterous, and delightful. —Justin Hayford

Pulse Theatre's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • Pulse Theatre's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

[Recommended] Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Two married couples do nocturnal battle over enough hard liquor to kill a triceratops in Edward Albee’s unhinged 1962 classic, the drawing-room play to end all drawing-room plays. This Pulse Theatre production, directed by Chris Jackson, nails the contrapuntal swinging mayhem of Albee’s script, but with the central pair out for blood from the first words, you miss the sense of their putting on a show for their young guests. Lewis R. Jones is terrific as husband George, a middle-aged associate professor of history bitter that he hasn't risen further at the university, over which his father-in-law presides as president. Nicholia Q. Aguirre, playing his sharp-tongued, daddy-doting wife, Martha, gives a raw performance pulled from places as deep down as an actor can go. Caught up in George and Martha’s brutal mind games, couple number two, doe-eyed Honey (played by Kate Robison, an amazing talent), and her husband, Nick (Adam Zaininger, brilliant), an ambitious junior biology professor, eventually wield weapons of their own. —Max Maller

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