The American Mercy Tour, United Flight 232, and ten more new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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The American Mercy Tour, United Flight 232, and ten more new stage shows

A dual-sided look at health care and an electrifying study of heroism are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] The American Mercy Tour Written and performed by Michael Milligan, this is a harrowing two-parter on how and why our country has failed to protect its "huddled masses" from sickness and destitution. "All these people," says Joe, the bankrupt and humiliated auto mechanic of part one, waving a hand at invisible bank heads and bureaucrats. "They're just trying to make some money off my wife's being sick." Part two shifts to an attorney's office, where William, an overworked doctor, contemplates a standing offer from Big Pharma to buy his small family-owned practice. Compared with Joe, William has it made: nice car, IRA, vacations in France. All the same, the accumulated pressures of 30 consultations a day are about to destroy him. Milligan is more natural as William, but there's fury (and massive research) behind each performance. —Max Maller

Permoveo Productions' The Civility of Alfred Cashier - COLE SIMON
  • Cole Simon
  • Permoveo Productions' The Civility of Alfred Cashier

The Civility of Albert Cashier By the time of his death in 1915, Union soldier Albert D. J. Cashier would be betrayed by many of the same institutions and individuals for whom he sacrificed so much. Notably, his comrades in arms, who vouched for his bravery and entitlement to a full military pension, were never among them. Jay Paul Deratany's new musical for Permoveo Productions tells the incredible story of Cashier's Civil War engagements and the scandal that broke when, retired, he was outed as a biological female. The story, directed by Keaton Wooden, who cocomposed with Joe Stevens, flips awkwardly back and forth between the soldier's active combat and the year before his death, when, suffering from dementia, he was assigned to a mental institution. Though the light musical tone is often at odds with the substantial story, there are some undeniably affecting bluegrass and folk-infused moments here—especially between Dani Shay as young Cashier and Billy Rude as a smitten battle buddy. —Dan Jakes

City Lit Theater's Deirdre of the Sorrows - STEVE GRAUE
  • Steve Graue
  • City Lit Theater's Deirdre of the Sorrows

[Recommended] Deirdre of the Sorrows Here's a genuine rarity: the first professional Chicago production in a century of John Millington Synge's poetic tragedy, based on pre-Christian Irish mythology. Synge's last play—unfinished when he died at 37 in 1909, but completed by his friend William Butler Yeats for its 1910 premiere at Dublin's Abbey Theatre—retells the legend of Deirdre, betrothed since childhood to Conchubor, High King of Ulster. Unwilling to marry a man old enough to be her father, the beautiful, headstrong heroine instead flees to Scotland with her young lover, the warrior Naisi, leading to the bloodshed and sorrows that were foretold at her birth. Kay Martinovich's staging for City Lit Theater evokes an appropriately rustic simplicity with the aid of evocative costumes and tapestries, and the ten-person ensemble execute the dense, heavily accented, image-rich dialogue with an effective mix of lyrical eloquence and unaffected plainness. —Albert Williams

The Cuckoo's Theater Project's Distracted - JILLIAN LEFF
  • Jillian Leff
  • The Cuckoo's Theater Project's Distracted

[Recommended] Distracted Lisa Loomer's play centers on Mama (Rebecca Sparks) and the effort she expends trying to find out what's wrong with her nine-year-old son. Why can't he sit still or stop cursing? Is it chemical, emotional, environmental? What starts out as comedy gradually gains gravity and ends up as a critique of our media-saturated ADD age. The talented supporting cast nimbly juggles multiple roles, and there are many clever, winking transitions from internal monologue to external action, but the piece wouldn't go without Sparks's touching, nuanced performance. Marc James directed for the Cuckoo Theater's Project. —Dmitry Samarov

MadKap Productions' The Drowsy Chaperone - SCOTT RICHARDSON
  • Scott Richardson
  • MadKap Productions' The Drowsy Chaperone

[Recommended] The Drowsy Chaperone MadKap Productions takes on this Tony Award favorite, a "metamusical" that professes love for, and parodies, jazz age theater. Set in the apartment of Broadway superfan the Man in Chair (played by a charming and witty James Spangler), the entire show is a re-creation of his favorite musical, which he often plays on the turntable when he's blue. Having the cast emerge from his refrigerator sets the tone for an exceedingly goofy, slapstick send-up of tuner archetypes, though the musical within the musical quickly devolves into run-of-the-mill cases of mistaken identity and misunderstanding. Standout moments come during bride Janet's immodest performance number "Show Off" and her chaperone's "rousing anthem to alcoholism," a ditty called "As We Stumble Along." —Marissa Oberlander

Shattered Globe Theatre's The Heavens Are Hung in Black - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Shattered Globe Theatre's The Heavens Are Hung in Black

The Heavens Are Hung in Black Abraham Lincoln was a notoriously confounding man, and Shattered Globe Theatre is staging a confounding play about him. It's spring 1862 when we start our two-and-a-half-hour slog through the 16th president's days and dreams: The astoundingly grisly Civil War is going badly for the north, with a preening, paralyzed General McClellan in charge of the Union armies; the Lincolns' third son, 12-year-old Willie, has only recently died of typhus; and Washington political factions are fighting it out over the question of freeing the slaves. Playwright James Still packs all this and too much more into his metaphor-heavy, pedantic script without doing any of it justice. Certain matters—like Lincoln's tendency to pardon military offenses—get repeated over and over again to no particular end, while others—like his discussions of emancipation—are continually cut short. If not for Lawrence Grimm's engaging, even playful Lincoln (and especially his powerful rendition of a speech from Shakespeare's Henry V), Still's pageant would have no center of gravity at all. —Tony Adler

Babes With Blades' The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil - STEVEN TOWNSHEND
  • Steven Townshend
  • Babes With Blades' The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil

The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil Barbara Lhota's play built around one of America's first female superheroes, Scarlet O'Neil (whose adventures were featured in the funny papers from 1940 to 1956), feels right at home in the summer of Patti Jenkins's Wonder Woman. But this Babes with Blades world premiere fails to live up to its potential. Under Leigh Barrett's direction, the pace of the production starts off strong, then gets bogged down in exposition, digression, and some not-so-funny funny business. No question, the show features some fine acting—Chloe Baldwin is winning as O'Neil, and Lisa Herceg crackles as both a wise cracking receptionist and a brilliant inventor/movie star modeled on Hedy Lamarr. In the end, however, we're still left wanting less. —Jack Helbig

Ron Hawking in The Men and Their Music - PAUL NATKIN
  • Paul Natkin
  • Ron Hawking in The Men and Their Music

The Men and Their Music Chicago crooner Ron Hawking celebrates the tenth anniversary of what is essentially an evening of karaoke in which he co-opts the likes of Burt Bacharach and Tony Bennett. He has a great voice, and he tries to be a showman, twirling and tapping his feet like Sinatra. But the applause comes from song recognition, not from his straightforward renditions. I found myself waiting for that one number to raise my ear hairs, and it came when Hawking sang the Moody Blues' "Knights in White Satin" in Italian, his vibrato echoing as he leaned back to serenade the roof. The rest—well, one audience member put it best: "I'm happy he shortens each song." —Steve Heisler

Minita Gandhi in 16th Street Theater's Muthaland - ANTHONY AICARDI
  • Anthony Aicardi
  • Minita Gandhi in 16th Street Theater's Muthaland

[Recommended] Muthaland From the moment she enters from the back of the auditorium, dragging heavy baggage (both a metaphor and a key part of the show), Minita Gandhi grabs our attention and keeps it for the full 90 minutes of this rich, resonant, sometimes hilarious, at times deeply moving autobiographical piece about an Indian-American woman in her 30s who's still struggling to find her place in the world. As directed by Heidi Stillman, who also worked with Gandhi to develop the show, this gracefully told story avoids the self-indulgence and narcissism that drags down lesser solo works. It helps that Gandhi is a true chameleon, equally convincing whether playing her father, her mother, a dreamboat boyfriend, or a younger version of herself. —Jack Helbig

Helmut's Big Day, part of the Nox Arca One-Act Play Festival - TIFFANY KEANE SCHAEFER
  • Tiffany Keane Schaefer
  • Helmut's Big Day, part of the Nox Arca One-Act Play Festival

Nox Arca One-Act Play Festival Three young and tenacious companies inaugurate their new collective in the old Ravenswood Right Brain Project black-box space with an evening of shorts about—knock on wood—damnation. Death & Pretzels presents the most stage-ready piece with James Odin Wade's Helmut's Big Day, an absurdist sketch about a Renaissance border guardsman who's lost track of which plain he's supposed to be protecting. Toying with style, Reutan Collective's George and the Floating Cookbook, by Felicia Basanavicius, adds up to a fairly predictable domestic ghost story. And Otherworld Theatre's Eden of Omicon Ceti , by Nick Izzo, creates one fantastic but fleeting visual moment in the midst of its plodding sc-fi world building. All in all, it's a night of hungry young artists flexing and warming up their creative muscles in stories seemingly still very much in development. —Dan Jakes

Drury Lane Theatre's Rock of Ages - BRETT BEINER
  • Brett Beiner
  • Drury Lane Theatre's Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages Maybe it's a generational thing, or maybe just a question of trying to get one more drop of blood from the Rock. Past productions have approached Chris D'Arienzo's 2005 jukebox musical as an affectionate spoof of 80s hair metal, with a secondary streak of self-parody running through it. But in this new Drury Lane version, self-parody has become the point. Director Scott Weinstein seems to regard the book—about Sunset Strip rockers resisting a Giulianiesque effort to clean up their gloriously sleazy neighborhood—as less a text than a target. The staging is full of jokey, raunchy topical subversions, mainly carried out by Nick Druzbanski as Lonnie, the endlessly saucy narrator. It works often enough to keep things amusing but also makes you less likely to care what becomes of the would-be lovers (Cherry Torres and Russell Mernagh) at the center of the show. Still, the period music survives. It's hard to stop believing in "Don't Stop Believing". —Tony Adler

House Theatre of Chicago's United Flight 232 - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • House Theatre of Chicago's United Flight 232

[Recommended] United Flight 232 This outstanding play, remounted by the House Theatre of Chicago after an acclaimed debut last year, is like watching everything you always wanted to believe about the human capacity for goodness and self-sacrifice suddenly kick in at once. On a warm July morning in 1989, after the third engine and hydraulic systems of a DC-10 passenger plane carrying nearly 300 people both failed catastrophically in midair, the crew and passengers worked together to save more than half of those onboard when the plane smashed, upside down, into an Iowa cornfield. The intensity of the moment, as revealed in Vanessa Stalling's brilliant staging of a book by Laurence Gonzalez, called forth mysterious instincts, unusual acts of bravery, and fervent prayers among those who survived. With nine captivating performances, 232 is a religious experience. —Max Maller

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