Gypsy, Machinal, and three more new theater reviews | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Gypsy, Machinal, and three more new theater reviews

"The greatest book musical of all time" and a Woyzeck for the jazz age are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] Gypsy "Gypsy has long been regarded by many as the greatest book musical of all time," Music Theater Works artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller writes in the program notes for his company's production of the classic show. Count me among those many. With a crackling book by Arthur Laurents and tuneful, witty songs by veteran composer Jule Styne and up-and-coming lyricist Stephen Sondheim—fused into a seamless whole under the genius guidance of original director Jerome Robbins—Gypsy is the fact-based (but highly fictionalized) story of how Seattle single mom Rose Hovick tried to turn her daughters into vaudeville stars, refusing to realize that vaudeville was in its Depression-era death throes. Burlesque, however, was thriving, and Hovick's elder child became Gypsy Rose Lee, the highest-paid stripper in showbiz, whose memoir inspired this 1959 Broadway hit. Hogenmiller's staging emphasizes the show's comical and sentimental aspects, driven by Mary Robin Roth's brassy portrayal of "Madame Rose," the overbearing, frustrated stage mother wondering when it's going to be her turn in the limelight. —Albert Williams

Greenhouse Theater's Machinal - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Greenhouse Theater's Machinal

[Recommended] Machinal Think of Helen Jones as Woyzeck's great-great-great-granddaughter. Born around 1836, a creation of German genius Georg Büchner, Woyzeck is the prototype of the alienated modern: a soldier so routinely jacked around by the powers (and lovers) that be that he turns murderous. With Machinal (1928), playwright Sophie Treadwell regendered the scenario and updated it to jazz-age America. Treadwell's anomic twentysomething Helen supports herself and her implacable nag of a mother by working as a corporate stenographer. When her idiot boss gets romantic with her, she can either marry him or be fired, so she settles for a life of conjugal emptiness—until she meets a mysterious stranger. Featuring crisp movement by Elizabeth Margolius, Jacob Harvey's Greenhouse Theater Center production respects Treadwell's expressionist aesthetic without getting homage-y about it. The result is at once clinically distanced and painfully immediate as it dissects Helen's untenable life. Like Woyzeck himself, Heather Chrisler's Helen hovers between antihero and schlemiel. Her scene with Cody Proctor's stranger is quietly agonizing. —Tony Adler

Walkabout Theater's A Persephone Pageant - EVAN BARR
  • Evan Barr
  • Walkabout Theater's A Persephone Pageant

[Recommended] A Persephone Pageant Yes, there are votaries with moss and flowers in their hair waving gauze and satin streamers as they process, barefoot, in tunics and shiny pajama pants, singing not altogether tunefully about peace, love, and saving the planet. Yes, there is a power-mongering man, as shirtless as Putin when he goes horseback riding, who wants Lake Michigan to bow to his every whim. Yes, there is a chalk-white behemoth Zeus who waves his arms about like a broken clock. Walkabout Theater's A Persephone Pageant features gods on stilts battling it out like gladiatorial Transformers in flowing robes, songs composed by Mark Messing to text by Sarah Ruhl and Morgan McNaught, local children frolicking, and the occasional ever-welcome fish puppet. In an ecological twist on the Sartrean dictum—if we had any doubts—hell is people. —Irene Hsiao

Genesis Theatricals' Sister Africa - RON GOLDMAN
  • Ron Goldman
  • Genesis Theatricals' Sister Africa

Sister Africa Genesis Theatricals presents the world premiere of Stephanie Liss's drama based on her experiences as a Jewish humanitarian aid worker in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A rabbi, humanitarian volunteer, victim, rescue worker, and child soldier in turn offer soliloquies on suffering. Each character is a composite, and the speeches are syntheses of multiple experiences, which results in several well-meaning sermons but not much of a story. The play culminates in a graphic and horrifying description of rape and murder. Had it started there rather than with a litany of platitudes, this might have been a powerful chronicle of a catastrophe. Elayne LeTraunik directed. —Dmitry Samarov

Idle Muse Theatre Company's The Veil - STEVEN TOWNSHEND
  • Steven Townshend
  • Idle Muse Theatre Company's The Veil

The Veil Set in 1822 in a gloomy, decaying Irish manor home, Conor McPherson's 2011 play, about a once-powerful Irish family now destroyed by madness, follows the formula of a traditional gothic tale a la Ann Radcliffe or Edgar Allan Poe—the house is even haunted. But the story McPherson tells, about an upper-class household coping (or not coping) with the loss of their protective bubble, is right out of Chekhov. The result is a sometimes creaky hybrid that pulls its punches when describing a corrupt system that just 20 years later will result in the deaths of a million Irish people and the migration of a million more. The ghost, when it appears in this staging from Idle Muse Theatre Company, isn't scary. And we never really care about the fate of McPherson's benighted Lambrokes—at least not in Ann Kreitman's competently directed but ultimately cold production. —Jack Helbig

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